16 December 2015

Secret Space Escapes: Soyeon Yi interview

Space is a dangerous place. Astronauts are trained to respond to and overcome challenges that they encounter on their missions. Some of these near disasters are featured in the TV series Secret Space Escapes, which continues on the Science Channel.

A4H's Victoria Varone sat down with astronauts Linger, Curbeam, and Yi during their recent appearance at New York Comic Con. Here, we've posted her interview with astronaut Soyeon Yi. They discussed Yi's rough return to Earth in a Soyuz capsule after her mission to the ISS in 2008. Scroll down to read the whole interview but first check out this video on how she became Korea's first astronaut at the young age of 29!.

Meet Soyeon Yi: Korea's First Astronaut! from GoodNeighbors on Vimeo.

A4H: So, this panel’s about disasters in space. Have you experienced any mishaps in space?

SY: We had a ballistic reentry because we had a problem during the separation of our capsule. Some part of the habitation module was still attached to the descending module, which it shouldn’t have been, so we lost our balance and we were upside down facing the heat without heat insulation. Our hatch almost went out, but luckily we got out of the heat within several seconds and survived. Because we lost balance, it should have added a whole extra hour of flight to the ballistic reentry, but we landed with several minutes of the original plan and we landed 400 kilometers away from the place we designated. So, that was kind of like a disaster and it almost killed us but finally, luckily, we survived.

AiPT (other interviewer from AiPT): You didn’t land in somebody’s neighborhood, did you? Where did you end up?

SY: Well, we didn’t mean to, but yes, we kind of landed in somebody’s neighborhood. Not a residential area, but a kind of nomadic shepherd, in a tent. So, several kilometers, maybe miles, away, they saw us in the sky, when we had our parachutes. They were surprised because they had no idea about our space program, no idea about astronauts, they just thought one big rock was falling down from the sky, in the middle of Kazakhstan. They were really nomadic, isolated persons, traveling around in a tent in the huge Kazakhstan area. They came over to us but were so afraid to interact, so they kept their distance and watched us. Some guy even poked me with a stick, a long stick, to check to see if I was alive or not. We were so exhausted and had gotten out of the capsule by ourselves and were laying down in the grass by ourselves... and they just wanted to know who we were, maybe *what* we were, and if we were alive or not. Finally, one of the guys could speak just a little Russian and we communicated with each other and they got to know that we are humankind, as they are. It was quite a fun and interesting and weird experience after landing, but then we realized the search and rescue must not be able to find us. We’d already been waiting more than 10 minutes and we believed they knew where we were but they didn’t. We tried to find our GPS and satellite phone to contact mission control and they finally got to know where we were. After 30 minutes or so, one helicopter came to us to rescue us. It was a fun experience.

A4H: It was fun, even the crashing part was fun?

SY: Yes! One thing we feel so bad about is that we don’t have any photos of our landing, from when we were getting out of the capsule, because we didn’t have a camera, and the nomadic people didn’t have a camera. We only have a photo from after the search and rescue team came, after getting out of our astronaut suits. So that’s one thing I feel sorry about because other astronauts often have photos taken even *during* the landing because two helicopters escort them during the *reentry.* Even before the touchdown, the helicopters are already there! We didn’t have that. But it’s okay because we had a really unique experience.

A4H: Do you want to go back into space?

SY: Of course, of course, if I can. But the Korean government doesn’t have any plans yet, and I probably won’t be able to fly with the tourism commercial ones because I cannot afford it, it’s crazy expensive...

A4H: So you would like to If you got more *work* doing it, right?

SY: Yeah, if I can find a really good job, then maybe.

AiPT: Was that your only spaceflight?

SY: Yeah, that was my only spaceflight.

AiPT: And despite the way it ended, you’re still ready to go back?

SY: Yes. I think I’m quite lucky because some astronauts have had two or three spaceflights and they haven’t had any accidents, they always had a normal flight.

AiPT: So you’re *lucky?*

SY: Yeah, I’m crazy lucky because my mission was 10 days long, which is shorter than most others, but I still had an *extreme* experience. So as long as you survive, as long as you are alive, you are lucky.

A4H: Did you grow up always wanting to be an astronaut?

SY: No, I never dared to dream about being an astronaut because in Korea, we didn’t have an astronaut program. We didn’t have any astronauts *ahead* of us. When I was 3 years old, 5 years old, and I didn’t know the “real world,” I might have dreamed about it. But when I became a teenager and started to read the newspaper and learned about some real things happening in my country, it looked like maybe only Russian, American, maybe Japanese, maybe some Chinese...THEY would fly. Koreans might not. It might be impossible. But one day I got that chance of a lifetime, so I just applied, even though I didn’t know if I would make it. I feel so grateful that I was the right age at the right time because we just never knew when it would happen in Korea. I believe I’m a very lucky person.

A4H: What was it like during your sole spaceflight?

SY: My first impression was that I’d been *deceived* because all the astronauts told me “Oh you’ll want to go back, spaceflight is awesome, you should go,” so I always had these good fantasies and dreams about spaceflight. But when I arrived in orbit and was free-floating, the motion sickness started. I vomited every 10 minutes. I grew an inch or more because of the lack of gravity and I had crazy back pain. So for several hours - with a headache, back pain, vomiting, couldn’t eat anything, could only drink apple juice - I’m thinking oh my god, WHO told me this was incredible? WHO told me that it’s awesome? It’s not awesome at all!

A4H: Did they let you take Dramamine before you went up?

SY: We could have taken it, but the side effects of feeling drowsy and sleepy...I didn’t want to be drowsy so I rejected the offer. It was *horrible.* But after awhile, I adapted. All of the motion sickness was gone, all the back pain was gone, and then I realized why they say that space is incredible. After coming back, one of my friends came to my bedside because I couldn’t move at all. I had serious back pain and motion sickness again and he asked me “Do you really wanna go back?” Yes. “Even if you hurt that much?” Yes, I really wanna go back. “Do you really think it’s awesome?” YES, IT’S AWESOME. I have to try. And all of the astronauts told me it would be just like that, that even if I felt deceived at first, it would turn out really well.

AiPT: What do you think about the future of human spaceflight?

SY: It depends on us. If we push really hard, if we really want it, it will be better and we’ll have a great chance of flying more people. But some people are still cynical and kinda skeptical, and some people think it’s a waste of money to invest in space. If there are more people like that, it might be harder to move forward. Whatever happens, it always depends on us. The leaders we pick, the policies and regulations we make, the environment we create, and what kind of support we give to NASA and commercial space companies... again, it’s all on us. We will be responsible for that. Hopefully, it will be a great time for all the people who want to fly.

A4H: What would you say to kids and teenagers who ask “What do I have to do to become an astronaut?”

SY: The first step is easy: you should be interested in it. Follow the news on everything that happens and support the people who are already doing it. As a teenager, you should probe your mom and dad to vote for the person who will make better space policies. A lot of parents ask me “What should *we* do to make our kids’ dreams come true?” They should vote. Vote smart. Vote wise. That’s the best way as an adult, as a parent who really wants to make their kids’ dreams come true. And the kids, of course, you should study hard. Whatever you want to be, doing your homework is first! Sorry about that, I know you probably don’t want to hear an astronaut say that. I did my homework dutifully during my school days and that helped me become an astronaut. So you cannot skip your homework, you cannot skip your reading. If you really want to be a rocket scientist, study rocket science. There’s no shortcut. If you really want to be an astronaut, you should study science and engineering and math, even if it’s hard.

A4H: What are you thoughts on going to Mars?

SY: That’s an interesting question. First of all, I would really love to go. After watching the movie “The Martian,” I want to go even more. I really envy Matt Damon because even though he didn’t travel to Mars for real, he got a taste of it. He got to simulate it. I would love to go. I don’t want to colonize the planet, but I’d like to at least visit. I don’t want to move to Mars.

A4H: So you wouldn’t want to go if it’s a one-way trip?

SY: Right. It’s the same as the fact that I don’t want to *live* in New York, but I love to visit. I love having friends in New York to visit. I don’t want to live on Mars. I want to live on Earth, in my own house. But I would *love* to visit. It’s like when you go camping. Do you really want to *live* in the forest? You don’t, but you want to stay there for two or three days and chill out. With Mars and moons and other planets, for me, it’s the same thing. I really want to visit, to try something new, to have an adventure, and to challenge myself.

A4H: Even if it was a very *long* mission, like in “The Martian” where they’re on that ship for a year, two years…

SY: Yes, because I think it’s fun to enjoy the *process.* I don’t want to just GO to Mars, I want to experience the whole way *going* to Mars. Some people, even when they travel for fun, they just want to get to their destination as fast as possible. They don’t look out the window or talk to the people beside them. They stress about traffic jams, but when traveling, traffic is just another part of the process. I hope I can enjoy the process.

Other: You don’t think you’d get kinda antsy? You don’t think you’d wanna, you know... kill your shipmates on a two-and-a-half year mission to Mars?

SY: I don’t think so... it depends. It depends on what happens and how stressful it is. But I’m the person who always tries to find something fun, even in a totally empty room. If it’s two-and-a-half years and it’s really boring, tricky, and risky, I would try to find something fun and enjoyable to pass the time. When I was in a lab doing my Ph.D, I was alone in a dark room with my microscope and my DNA and my chips. The DNA should have moved inside of my chips but it didn’t move at all. I spent the whole night staring at it...I even talked to it. In the middle of the night, one of my labmates came back to the lab to find something and he asked “Is there anyone else in this room? Who are you talking to?” I’m talking to my DNA.

A4H: And in the movie, he’s really annoyed because he has to listen to disco music the whole time. What kind of music would you want with you?

SY: I’ve always loved the fun music... disco, rock, and pop, and I love to sing along. Whenever I’m alone in my lab or office I always turn on the music loudly and sing along while doing whatever I’m doing. Whenever I’m doing house chores like laundry or any cleaning, I turn on the music loudly because it’s a really boring job and I always try to make it fun.

Other: So everyone on the trip would get mad at *you.*

SY: Maybe, but I wouldn’t want to bother my crewmates, so I’d do it whenever I’m alone or whenever the others say yes, because they might want to enjoy it with me!

A4H: Great, thank you so much.

SY: Thank YOU.

The series Secret Space Escapes premiered on November 10. It features stories from more than 20 astronauts on how they applied their exhaustive training to escape from life-threatening situations during space missions. See our previous interview with Jerry Linenger, and stay tuned for an upcoming one with Robert Curbeam.

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