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Astronaut candidate returns as start-up venture consultant

Korea is a country where one in every five economically active person runs his or her own business. Recent surveys showed that nearly half of university students have thought of starting their own enterprises rather than joining the competition to get a job in established companies. Thousands of young Koreans are actually starting ventures, ranging from smart phone application developers to internet shopping malls and coffee shops.

The government runs a variety of programs in cooperation with universities and research institutes to assist start-up ventures and offer financial aid to those with unique technologies or brilliant ideas. 
Ko San in a recent interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul. (Ahn Hoon/The Korea Herald)
Ko San in a recent interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul. (Ahn Hoon/The Korea Herald)

“But many of the universities and research institutes that run these programs often lack the capacity to focus on fostering the next Mark Zuckerbergs, and this is where non-profit organizations can come in,” Ko San, a former astronaut candidate-turned-venture consultant, said in an interview with The Korea Herald.

The 34-year-old cognitive scientist recently launched the TIDE Institute, a non-profit organization assisting young entrepreneurs and helping them obtain investment. Earlier this month, he gave lectures to science and engineering college students in a weeklong forum for young entrepreneurs.

“We wish to serve as the engine that pushes in new knowledge in a program that supports young entrepreneurs,” said Ko, who studied nuclear engineering and mathematics as an undergraduate and earned his master’s degree in cognitive science.

Ko had been selected as the final candidate in Korea’s bid to produce its first astronaut through a Russian astronaut training program in 2008, but was abruptly replaced a month ahead of the flight into space on accusations that he stole a classified manual on space shuttle operation. He worked with the Korea Aerospace Research Institute for two years after that and went on to study in Harvard Kennedy School last year.

“I wish to contribute in the policymaking process for science and technologies,” Ko said.

“While working in the policy planning department of KARI under the (astronaut project) contract upon returning from Russia, I learned that public officials really work hard and produce good policies, but that there are certain gaps to be filled.”

Before attending Kennedy School, Ko took part in a 10-week program for entrepreneurial leaders at Singularity University in California.

“There, I realized that many young American entrepreneurs really have the passion and courage to take risks and push ahead with their ventures, whereas most Koreans pursue stability; we are constantly affected by what others say and easily give up good ideas,” he said.

“People start ventures because they want to try something new that makes their hearts beat. They can make money, create social values through their enterprises. Being an entrepreneur is widely perceived as a fun and exciting thing to do (in the U.S.), and we hope to create this kind of social atmosphere in Korea too,” he said.

Ko is also planning to work on another project to build a sort of “platform” to connect capable international talents with the public sector in Korea.

About the various rumors concerning the main reason he was replaced as an astronaut candidate in Russia back in 2008, Ko declined to comment.

“I do not think it would be appropriate to discuss something that happened a long time ago,” he said.

But he noted that the Korean government’s program of sending astronaut candidates for training in Russia to go into space aboard a Russian space shuttle then had its shortcomings.

“I heard that the Chinese astronauts who were trained there carried microphones and recorded everything they learned. They went back home and trained their own astronauts making use of everything they learned in Russia,” Ko said.

“Astronauts are like the flowers of the space industry. An astronaut becomes an astronaut based on the works of countless engineers and scientists, who are the stems and roots of the flower. Russia has all of that.”

Korea will continue to strengthen its roots and stems of space industry step by step until it blossoms one day, and there will be no need to rush, Ko said.

By Kim So-hyun (