30 years ago, South Koreans took their first steps into space (1/2)

Part 1 – From the Origins to the First Actors

Traumatized by the Communist North Korean War of Invasion (1950-53), the South Korean authorities have never stopped wanting to acquire and master any weapon system that allows them to ensure the security of the territory, starting with rockets.

The first rocket studies

Initially, despite American protection, the first president Syngman Rhee (1948-1960) wanted his country to acquire the basic scientific and technological elements necessary for the production of guided missiles. For this he created the National Defense Scientific Research Institute (NDSRI) in 1956, and whose specialists, motivated by the first Soviet Sputniks, in 1958 developed the first South Korean rockets (with solid propellant) of one (005 -ho), two (67- ho) and even three floors (556-ho). The latter, with a length of 3.1 m, flies up to a distance of 81 km at a maximum altitude of 42 km (with a payload of 1.2 kg). Building on this success, NDSRI plans to build liquid-propellant rockets. But from April 1960, the country sank into a political crisis, culminating in Park Chung-he’s coup d’état on 16 May 1961. The new strongman then prioritized his country’s industrial development to catch up with the North. The Americans support the initiative, but on the condition that Korea remains dependent on the United States militarily. NDSRI is the victim…

In the late 1960s, Park Chung-he began to doubt the reliability of the American ally in the event of a new conflict, especially as military aid was in danger of dwindling. This led him to create the Defense Development Agency (ADD) on 6 August 1970 to initiate research leading to new weapons systems, equipment and materials. A surface-to-surface missile program is launched using American technologies (thrusters, guidance systems, etc.). If the work led to the NHK-1 / Paekkom missile in 1978, these also laid the industrial and technological foundations that were very useful during the development of sounding rockets and even the first national launch pad some twenty years later…

Priority for economic development

Park Chung-hee’s action is not limited to the modernization of armies. Throughout his authoritarian presidency (1962-79), he helped transform South Korea into a newly industrialized country. It supports the development of chaebol and high-tech hubs, such as Daedeok Science Town (now Daedeok Innopolis). Located 150 km south of Seoul, this center brings together many private laboratories and government research institutes, such as that of the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (Kaist) – one of the most important South Korean universities.

After the assassination of Park Chung-he in 1979, Chun Doohwan took power in a coup. The new strongman decided to suspend ADD’s missile programs so as not to damage US-South Korea relations, temporarily crippling missile studies. However, in the late 1980s, faced with the evolution of US policy – which envisaged secession from Korea – and the North Korean terrorist threat, the ADD was put back in place (1988).

1987, a turning point in the South Korean space

Until then, only national security took precedence with the possible development of missiles. But when the Olympic Games were awarded to Seoul in 1981 (for 1988), the idea of ​​having communication satellites to broadcast the Games seemed essential. But without either the technological means or the budget, South Korea is forced to lease satellites from the Intelsat consortium… This frustration moves the lines and space becomes an issue. The government thus adopted a law in December 1987 to promote initiatives in favor of the development of space technologies. Three players are emerging and will play a key role in the development of the South Korean space: the Kari Research Institute, the industrial company Korean Telecom (KT) and the University of Kaist.

First actors, first programs

In November 1988, the Minister of Science and Technology proposed the creation of an aerospace agency: the Korean Aerospace Research Institute (Kari). While military studies remain at ADD, civilian space activities are assigned to Kari, founded on October 10, 1989. President Roh Tae-woo, a proponent of a national space, declares: “I hope that we can make a satellite with our hands and send it into our hands in this century. » Thus, the primary goal of Kari is to create an environment that promotes the development of national aviation industries. In terms of space, the aim is to develop applications, especially in Earth observation, to produce the first scientific and technological satellites, but also sounding rockets to acquire know-how, which will then be used to build a launch vehicle to ensure South Korea’s independence in the form of free access to the room. As for the KT company, it is responsible for the development of the first telecommunications satellite (Koreasat), in collaboration with the Americans, providing the bus (by Martin Marietta / Lockheed Martin) and the launch (by a Delta 7925 on August 5, 1995).

However, the beginning of Kari is difficult. At the level of the scientific satellite, this one must face another proposal that obtains the government’s approval: created a few months before Kari at the initiative of the scientists from Kaist, Satellite Technology Research Center (SaTRreC) formulates the idea to start by sending space science and engineering engineers abroad to complete their training, to produce small scientific and technological satellites at a lower cost that will use miniaturized components (the Kitsat project). As for Kari, instead of scientific satellites, it will have to concentrate on the creation of the first earth observation satellite (Kompsat).

(To be continued)

Some references

A general book: New Space Powers: The New Space Programs in Asia, the Middle East, and South AmericaBrian Harvey, Henk HF Smid, Theo Pirard, Springer Paxis, 2010.

A study : National Aspirations, Imagined Futures, and Space Exploration: The Origins and Development of the Korean Space Program 1958–2013by Hyoung Joon An, Georgia Institute of Technology, December 2015.

Philippe Varnoteaux is a doctor of history, specialist in the beginnings of space research in France and author of several reference works

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