On Nov 26, 2013, the Naro Space Center of the Korea Aerospace Institute announced that Korea’s first domestic space launch vehicle (KSLV-II) would be fully developed by the year 2020, which is one year earlier than what had been predicted. “Success, that’s the word we are looking forward to. Our researchers and technical experts will make a concerted effort to turn the nation’s dream of producing the first domestic technology-based space launch vehicle into reality,” said Chul-Hyoung Lee (Materials Science and Engineering ’00), the director of the Naro Space Center. IHN met with Lee to hear about his life story and the national project to launch a rocket and reach the moon.
The Naro Space Center, located in Goheung County, South Jeolla Province is the Korea’s first spaceport constructed in 2009. Soon after it was established, he started off working at the center as a researcher specializing in Materials Science and against all odds, eventually became a director for Aerospace Management.
A. It is true that working at a space center had been rather an extraordinary idea in the early 2000s, as few people had trod the path before. But I was not afraid, for I truly enjoyed my work of designing the structures of space launch vehicles. As a matter of fact, I was fascinated with space exploration and the vehicles used in the process since I was a student at HYU. So for my interests, I decided to engage in Aerospace research for its national development and simply to challenge myself. With two of my friends by my side, I started the adventure leaping into the unknown. In March 2002, I entered the Aerospace Research Institute after passing the entrance examination, which I had prepared one and a half years for.
A. My job at the Naro Space Center isn’t exactly designing or constructing space vehicles. I have been running the project as the director. That is to say, I have been in charge of Aerospace management, which entailed me to check if the equipment is kept intact and the system is operating with precision. Specifically, to manage the space vehicles, I take note of the place the rocket is launched to get it back for use in the future. Usually, the rocket flies off to the South so I try to check if there are any space mechanisms spotted in the direction right after the launch. On top of that, I also keep track of the amount of fuel needed for the operation of rockets.
A. Precisely, the space centers of the United States and Russia were originally missile launch facilities. Kennedy Space Center of the former country for instance, used to be a missile development institute directly connected to the air force. Japan used to produce pencil rockets and a variety of mechanisms used for missiles back in the past. Nonetheless, contrary to the countries aforementioned, we did not have a missile launch facility or missile technology control regime (MTC) in the past and as a result, we had a late start with space vehicle development. However, we will not give up. We have some of the world’s best technology, which will allow us to outdo our competitors and eventually be the top space center in the world.
A. The KSLV-II development program has begun. We have been testing the engine, which will be used in the rocket. The rocket launch takes place in an extreme conditions where a perfectly functioning engine is needed. 1.9 Trillion won will be spent on the KSLV-II development. Currently, we are striving to come up with well-functioning turbopumps for the engine. Hopefully, by May, we will be able to start test-firing. The pump produces a huge amount of heat exceeding 10000 RPM. Cooling it is critical. With the highly advanced domestic technology, we have completed the design for the 75-ton engine. However, it is too early to say that we have done much. We will go through more than 200 trials to ensure that it will be functioning perfectly for the launch.
A. We have been designing various rockets since the early 1990s. For instance, since 1993, we have come up with the Korea Sounding Rocket. As a part of the Korea National Space Program, the Korean government has led the Sounding Rocket Program by our research institute. The program has included the Korea Sounding Rocket (KSR-I, KSR-II, and KSR-III). The main mission objective was to provide the opportunity for scientists researching earth sciences and astrophysics. Most importantly, it contributed to improving Korean rocket development technologies including the flight systems, payload instruments, and operational techniques. However, we have been relying on foreign technology to carry out our programs and this has not been productive for us. Thus, what we are trying to do in the year 2020 is to fully develop the technology on our own and prove to the world that we now have the domestic technology to launch rockets, which would eventually be able to fly to the moon in the future.
A. Frankly speaking, we never expected a failure. KSLV-I was a Russian technology-based rocket developed to launch the first earth orbiting satellite from South Korea. It cost a tremendous amount of money to develop, including the creation of a new launch site. We actually paid more than 200 billion dollars to purchase the space launch vehicle from Russia. When the launch did not work out the first time, we thought we would be able to make it if we try once more. However, when it was delayed the second time and completely ended in a failure the third time we tried it, all of us panicked and the chief of the space center at the time told us to remain at the center for three months. We all hope this will never happen again in the future.
There are numerous renowned researchers and professors at HYU who have been promoting the development of the Aerospace technology. Professor Jinsoo Cho of Mechanical Engineering for instance, worked as the president of the Korean Society for Aeronautical & Space sciences (KSAS). I hope students would be inspired to pursue their own interests in the field after graduation. Precisely, back in the days at HYU, I also had a professor who advised to me that research is a continuation without an ending. He used to tell me to be a factory manager. Unlike a researcher, he said, a factory manager would not get much stress as he gets done with his work as soon as he produces certain amount of products to be manufactured a day. But look at me. I am involved in a business where research has to be an ongoing progress. Always seek advice but follow your heart.