South Korea has taken a first step in joining the elite global space club Wednesday with its third and final successful attempt to send off the Korea Space Launch Vehicle-1 (KSLV-1), also called Naro-1.
Seoul has opened a new chapter in its space technology development history. However, it seems that there is no sense of public urgency or passion for this in South Korean society.
The media coverage has been toned down compared to previous years, reflecting the fact that South Korea's launch attempt was postponed twice due to technical glitches after suffering two earlier successive failures in 2009 and 2010.
Furthermore, the South has never recovered from the shock of North Korea's "successful" launch of a satellite using a self-developed rocket in December 2012, which resulted in tougher sanctions against the North by the UN Security Council.
Against this backdrop, the Naro-1 project has been pushed forward more quietly than at any other time. Unlike in other technology fields, South Korea has lagged far behind in space technology.
South Korea's space budget for 2012 was around 240 billion won ($200 million), too small compared with the billions of dollars spent by such Asian members of the space club as China, Japan and India.
The South can hardly claim to have mastered the rocket technology, because the first stage of the two-stage rocket was provided by a Russian company.
Moreover, Seoul's space efforts have long been circumscribed by a missile agreement with the US, which until recently limited the range of South Korea's missiles to 300 kilometers.
The gap between the two Koreas in rocket technology is also huge. According to the South Korea's Agency for Defense Development, the debris of the Unha-3 rocket launched by the North on December 12, 2012, which was retrieved from the Yellow Sea, has shown that the majority of the parts were manufactured inside North Korea.
Experts say that the South is five to seven years behind the North in space technology.
Of course, this gap results from the differences in their policy priorities. North Korea has concentrated whatever resources it has in rocket development as part of its determination to build long-range missiles, which it sees as essential for national security.
In terms of the overall level of science and technology, the South is far ahead of the North. Yet the South has not been as serious as the North about building rockets.
On the other hand, however, it is true that the successive failures of the Naro-1 project in 2009 and 2010 and the North's "successful" launch were a great stimulus to the South.
The Unha-3 rocket of the North shocked South Koreans just as Sputnik 1, the first satellite the Soviet Union put into space in October 1957, shocked Americans. Therefore, most South Koreans think that the country's space program should be continued. This public perception justifies a big boost in the government's investment in space technology.
South Korea has already started to work on the KSLV-2, an indigenous three-stage launch vehicle. The government's plan calls for the development of a 10-ton thruster engine by 2014 and a 75-ton engine by 2018. It aims to build the KSLV-2 by 2021.
If the South successfully launches the KSLV-2, then it can claim membership of the so-called space club, a small number of countries capable of launching satellites using their own carrier rockets.
With creating a mega department with the somewhat grandiose title of the Ministry of Future Creation and Science, President-elect Park Geun-hye is also widely expected to push for strong space challenge.
The author is a professor in the Asiatic Research Institute of Korea University. firstname.lastname@example.org