Business school is the final frontier—or at least it is for Soyeon Yi, South Korea’s first astronaut and the second Asian woman in space. A second-year MBA student at University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, Yi says adjusting to business school was almost as tough as acclimating to the lack of gravity in space. “I would look up words in the dictionary and couldn’t even understand them in Korean because they were words I never used.”
Recently, Yi had a conversation with Bloomberg Businessweek reporter Francesca Di Meglio. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:
Photographer: Jim Block, San Francisco
How did you end up going to space?
The South Korean government announced there was going to be a human space flight program and that anyone over the age of 19 and in good health could apply. It was like an American Idol competition, and about 36,000 people applied. I never thought I would win. The 300 survivors after cuts were on TV competing for the one spot. My mom was really excited because I was on TV. And I made it. I won. I went through one year of training. I was a backup astronaut, so I wasn’t supposed to actually go up in space. But a month before my mission with a Russian crew, I was informed that I’d be flying. In April 2008, I went to the International Space Station for 11 days to conduct experiments. I worked for the program for four more years before enrolling in Haas.
What was it like in space?
It was like the movie Gravity, which is very close to real life. I could fly like Peter Pan. But it was painful at first. You are never going to find balance in space, so you are always floating. For the first two to three days, you experience motion sickness. I was throwing up every 10 minutes or so. After that, your body adjusts and you start to enjoy it. I would love to go back, but the government has no budget for a second mission.
Why did you decide to go to business school?
I want to get closer to businesspeople who bring technology to the people. I want to serve as a bridge between science geeks and businesspeople. I have credibility with engineers because I’ve studied engineering and went to space. My MBA from Haas will give me credibility with businesspeople. I don’t know yet exactly what job will allow me to do this.
Do you feel a special responsibility to Korea after being its first astronaut?
Anyone in this position feels a responsibility to her country. Some people in Korea criticize me for not returning to Korea after graduation [from Haas]. Korea is small and it wants to grow. We need to leave Korea to make connections with the outside world to be able to help the country later. Certainly we still need strong people inside Korea, but we have to go outside, too.
I also feel a huge responsibility to help humanity. If you go up in space and look through the window, you feel lucky to have been born in a better place [such as Korea]. Others are not so lucky. Those in better places have the responsibility to support the others. It’s not an option. It’s a responsibility from God, I believe.