(ATTN: RECASTS title; UPDATES with more details throughout)
SEOUL, March 10 (Yonhap) -- With less than a month to go before its first astronaut travels into space, South Korea has made a last-minute change, selecting a woman instead of a man, the government said Monday.
In a news briefing, the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology said it has decided to switch its primary astronaut candidate for the planned April 8 launch from Ko San to Yi So-yeon following requests from Russian evaluators.
"The main reason for the change is based on two consecutive violations of training protocol by Ko," said Lee Sang-mok, the head of the ministry's space technology bureau. Ko mistakenly sent a mission training manual home along with his personal belongings last September, which was sent back immediately.
Last month he acquired a spacecraft pilot's instructions that he was not authorized to look at. The South Korean astronaut is a mission specialist and is required to carry out various scientific experiments in space.
"Ko was aware of the rules and signed an agreement not to break them on entering the program," Lee said. Controllers from the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI) had also warned him to be careful of abiding by the rules, he added.
KARI president Paik Hong-yul said the Russian emphasized the importance of following rules because minor mistakes and disobedience could result in serious consequences in space.
The scientist said that Russia sent a report on the infractions on Friday along with the result of medical tests and asked South Korea to make the "right decision" on this issue.
Paik said an expert panel was convened over the weekend with the final decision being made to make the switch earlier in the day.
"Ko, however, will not be penalized for being made the backup astronaut and no changes will be made to his status as senior researcher at KARI," the expert said.
Local authorities, meanwhile, said because Yi and Ko were trained side-by-side, there is no reason for the switch to affect Yi's performance.
Yi and Ko were selected as finalists from 36,206 hopefuls in late 2006, but Ko was picked last September to go to the International Space Station based on evaluations conducted at that time.
The 29-year-old Yi, a doctoral candidate in bio systems engineering, was named the backup and trained alongside her male counterpart.
Under the latest change, Yi will blast off from Kazakhstan's Baikonur Space Center on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft and stay on board the space station for about a week, conducting various experiments. She is scheduled to board a capsule for earth on April 19.
Of the hundreds of people have gone to space only 49 were women. The United States leads the pack, having sent 41 nationals into space including those with Asian ethnic backgrounds, followed by three from Russia, including Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to go into space in 1963. Canada has sent two women into space with Japan, France and Britain having sent one each.
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