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South Korea's first astronaut is back on Earth

Latest update : 2008-04-19

Her capsule landed 420km off target and 20 minutes late, but Yi So-Yeon, the first South Korean in space, landed safe and sound in the Central Asian country Kazakhstan. (Report: B. Harris)

South Korea's first astronaut returned to Earth on Saturday, touching down with two International Space Station crew members slightly off target in ex-Soviet Kazakhstan, space officials said.

Russian television showed the Soyuz spacecraft parachuting onto the barren Kazakh steppe and officials helping Korean scientist Yi So-Yeon and her two colleagues from their cramped capsule.

"All of the cosmonauts are well," said Anatoly Perminov, head of the Russian space agency Roskosmos, which managed the descent.

Yi, whose mission was hailed as a landmark for the Korean space programme, returned to Earth with Russian flight engineer Yury Malenchenko and US astronaut Peggy Whitson, who has now spent more time in space than any other American.

The three were plucked by Russian helicopters from the landing site in Kazakhstan, a Russian ally in Central Asia that has hosted the Russian space programme since the Soviet era, officials said.

They missed their target because they changed their landing plan at the last minute without telling mission control, delaying rescuers, said Roskosmos head Perminov in a televised press conference.

Yi, a biosystems engineer, carried out a series of experiments during her nine-day mission on the space station, which President Lee Myung-Bak has described as the start of a "march towards space" for South Korea.

After paying some 20 million dollars (12.8 million euros) for Yi's mission, Seoul is due to launch a satellite from its own space base later this year.

Yi also brought an Asian flavour to the ISS, taking a kimono on board and bringing South Korea's beloved pickle dish kimchi into space.

"I am so honoured to be the one who flies in space and I want to do my best for the whole of Korea, the whole of Asia," she said in a video link with the ISS on Tuesday.

"The most fantastic thing is I cannot feel my weight at all and I can fly like Peter Pan."

While Yi only spent nine days on board, Whitson and Malenchenko were in orbit for 191 days. The trip pushed Whitson's career total to 377 days in space, more than any other American, US space agency NASA said.

She was replaced as commander by Russian Sergei Volkov, who at 35 is the youngest person ever to run the ISS, which has accommodated 156 astronauts from 15 countries, as well as five "space tourists."

Volkov is the son of former Russian cosmonaut Alexander Volkov, who launched from the Soviet Union and returned only after the Soviet collapse of December 1991, the two forming the first father-and-son space dynasty.

Back at mission control in Moscow, Malenchenko's wife Yekaterina said she was not upset that the crew had changed their landing plan at the last minute. "It's the second time that has happened," she said.

"My first word to him will be 'hi' -- it's been so long since I've seen him," she said.

Malenchenko, who was making his third long-term flight in space, married Yekaterina via a video link up from the space station in 2003.

Date created : 2008-04-19