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South gets lift off.

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Thousands of South Koreans led by President Lee Myung-Bak gathered yesterday to celebrate the launch of the country's first astronaut from a space centre in Kazakhstan. A crowd of 3,000 watched on a giant outdoor TV screen as Yi So-Yeon blasted off from the Baikonur cosmodrome, bound for the International Space Station.

"Hurray!" shouted the crowd after the Russian Soyuz rocket carrying Yi and two Russian cosmonauts took off from the same launch pad where Yury Gagarin, the first human in space, began his famous flight in 1961. "I have strong feelings today. Today will go down in history as the start date of our march towards space," Lee declared.

Residents had started gath-ering two hours before the launch in front of the screen outside an office building in central Seoul. Some took souvenir pictures near a miniature rocket, with placards reading "The Republic of Korea in space!" as pop singers performed. Others prayed or watched nervously as Yi boarded the rocket.

Lee said in an earlier TV interview that South Korea is on track to become the world's seventh-largest space power in 2020, when the nation is to launch its own lunar orbiter. "The birth of South Korea's first astronaut is celebrated by the entire nation. It will give big hope to young people, in particular," he said.

A successful launch would make South Korea the 36th country to send a person into orbit. Yi, 29, was selected last month after her compatriot, engineering student Ko San, was dropped for breaching rules. He had taken manuals out of the high-security Star City training base. A biosystems engineer, Yi will conduct 14 scientific experiments in space and has said she hopes her flight would help further Korean science and bring peace with North Korea.

South Korea, a late starter in the space race, has launched three commercial communications satellites since 1995. It launched its first military communications satellite in 2006.

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Publication:7 Days (Dubai, United Arab Emirates)
Date:Apr 9, 2008
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