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Rocket engine expert, ex-NASA exec to lead Korea's new space agency

By Son Ji-hyoung

Published : April 24, 2024 - 18:22

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From left: Yoon Young-bin, nominee for the administrator of the Korea AeroSpace Administration; John Lee, nominee for KASA deputy administrator for mission directorates; Rho Kyung-won, nominee for KASA deputy administrator. (Yonhap) From left: Yoon Young-bin, nominee for the administrator of the Korea AeroSpace Administration; John Lee, nominee for KASA deputy administrator for mission directorates; Rho Kyung-won, nominee for KASA deputy administrator. (Yonhap)

South Korea on Tuesday tapped a South Korean liquid rocket engine expert and a Korean-American who retired from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the United States for the leadership positions of the nascent space agency set for blastoff in late May.

According to the presidential office in Seoul, Yoon Young-bin, an aerospace engineering professor at the Seoul National University, was named the new administrator of the Korea AeroSpace Administration, or KASA.

Yoon's four decades of academic experience have revolved around the liquid rocket engine, combustion and propulsion, according to the office.

Yoon, 62, has a track record of partaking in state-led space projects such as the development of domestically-produced space launch vehicles including Naro, as well as a lunar exploration project in its early stage, according to Sung Tae-yoon, director of national policy at the presidential office.

Plus, former US NASA senior executive John Lee will serve as the KASA deputy administrator for mission directorates.

Born in 1956, Lee is currently a senior adviser to the state-backed Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute. After moving to the US at the age of 10, Lee worked at NASA for nearly 30 years, specializing in flight missions, technology validation and space program management.

Lee previously served as senior adviser of flight projects at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, director of joint agency satellite division at NASA and program executive in NASA Science Mission Directorate's Heliophysics Division. He also worked as acting chief of the information policy and technology branch at the Office of Management and Budget in the White House.

Lee's work experience with "project management in the White House and his vast international professional network renders him a right fit for the position," Sung said.

From left: Yoon Young-bin, nominee for the administrator of the Korea AeroSpace Administration; John Lee, nominee for KASA deputy administrator for mission directorates; Rho Kyung-won, nominee for KASA deputy administrator. (Yonhap) From left: Yoon Young-bin, nominee for the administrator of the Korea AeroSpace Administration; John Lee, nominee for KASA deputy administrator for mission directorates; Rho Kyung-won, nominee for KASA deputy administrator. (Yonhap)

Also, career bureaucrat Rho Kyung-won will serve as the deputy administrator of the KASA. Rho is currently a senior official in charge of research and development policy at the Ministry of Science and ICT.

Rho, 55, is a skilled administrator with high expertise in aerospace technology, Sung said. Sung added Rho was a government official overseeing the launch of a Naro space launch vehicle in 2013.

According to Seoul, none of the three nominees are required to go through a parliamentary hearing. The three nominees will begin their service immediately after the KASA launches on May 27.

KASA's establishment was pledged by President Yoon Suk Yeol during his 2022 campaign, in the country that became the seventh in the world to have put space satellites into orbit using a homegrown space rocket from a domestic rocket launch center.

Yoon announced his plan to establish the new space agency in November 2022, and legislation to support the move passed the National Assembly in January.

The Ministry of Science and ICT has so far been tasked with the aerospace industry.

The fledgling agency will handle some 800 billion won ($582 million) of the national budget for this year, as President Yoon in March pledged to double the budget to 1.5 trillion won by 2027.