Yi So-yeon never set out to be an astronaut.
But after becoming one, she hopes to inspire people to reach their loftiest goals.
“Look around and find people to learn from,” the 41-year-old told a packed crowd of about 500 Saturday at Stanwood High’s Performing Arts Center. “You never know.”
The first Korean to fly in space and former Everett Community College physics instructor shared her story in a “To The Moon and Beyond” lecture sponsored by the Community Resource Center of Stanwood-Camano.
The scientist spoke about overcoming the odds of becoming South Korea’s first astronaut, her nine days aboard the International Space Station and her harrowing return to Earth — sprinkling in humorous stories and poignant moments aimed as inspiring youths to consider STEM careers.
“When she told her story, it made me so excited,” said Sybella, a 9-year-old from Lake Stevens who wore a NASA astronaut uniform to the lecture. “I really want to be an astronaut some day.”
On a whim in 2006, Yi joined 36,000 applicants competing to become South Korea’s first astronaut.
“I had a home field advantage,” she said. “The Korean Space Agency was at my college. If I had to be there at 9 a.m., I woke up at 8:30. Everyone else had to be on a train at 4 a.m., and they were exhausted.”
Yi said the application process was somewhat of a distraction for her while she worked toward her doctorate in biological science from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in Taejon.
As a result, she was more relaxed than her fellow applicants, who were more focused on being the one to go to space.
“To the young people here, I want to tell you to enjoy the procedure rather than the result,” Yi said.
When she made the final 10, Yi said she made sure to get selfies and phone numbers for the other nine applicants.
“I really wanted to be the friend of whoever the first astronaut was,” she said.
She said she spent her time in training soaking up knowledge from everyone she could, all the while sifting through data for her doctorate at night.
“I had no pressure because I didn’t know what I didn’t know,” said Yi, now a Puyallup resident who works with South Korean-based Studio XID and California-based Loft Orbital Solutions. “If being an astronaut didn’t work out they’d still have to call me doctor.”
Only about 10% of astronauts are women and, overall, men outnumber women in most STEM-related fields, according to NASA. Jobs, such as those in engineering and computer technology, often pay more than jobs in other fields.
Encouraging more women to enter these fields can be a significant factor in reducing the gender pay gap, according to United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
Yi said she regularly reflects on a quote from Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky, a Russian pioneer of the astronautic theory who lived from 1857 to 1935: "Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot remain in the cradle forever."
“I want myself to be developed, so I have to leave the cradle,” said Yi, adding that “cradle” could mean different things for different people. “You have to get out and explore.”
On April 8, 2008, Yi launched into space in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
In space, Yi conducted several experiments and ate the first kimchi in space — a staple in Korean cuisine made of salted and fermented vegetables.
“I was so happy to have kimchi, but it wasn’t fresh,” she said. “This tasted more like 100-year-old kimchi.”
Eliza, an 11-year-old from Marysville attending with family and friends, said afterward that Yi’s messages were funny and inspirational.
“Hearing stories of her adventures was amazing,” she said. “I learned that you need to try new things.”