Lee Myung-Bak, the South Korean president said: "I have strong feelings today. Today will go down in history as the start date of our march towards space".

 

Space power

In an earlier TV interview, Lee said that South Korea is on track to become the world's seventh-largest space power in 2020, when the nation is to launch its own lunar orbiter.

 

"The birth of South Korea's first astronaut is celebrated by the entire nation. It will give big hope to young people, in particular."

 

The Soviet-made Soyuz rocket
took off from Kazakhstan [AFP]
The South Korean government paid Russia about $25 million for the right to send the first Korean into space.

  

Before blasting off, Yi said she was fully ready for adventure aboard the Soviet-made Soyuz TMA-12 spacecraft.

 

"Right now, at the ISS, inside the Soyuz and right here, I am not a woman, I'm just a cosmonaut", she said.

 

She also told reporters that she wanted people in North Korea to be "happy" with her 12-day mission and share in her "triumph," while voicing hope that one day the North and South would be reunited.

Yi was selected last month to be the county's first astronaut after another South Korean candidate was taken off the mission for breaching rules by taking manuals out of Russia's high-security training base.

"It's amazing! It's fantastic!," Sim Eunsup, director of the Korean Aerospace Research Institute, said as he walked away from a viewing platform.

Sim said that he hoped that Yi's flight will form the basis of the country's manned space programme.

 

Yi has said she planned to take kimchi, a traditional spicy cabbage, into space and sing a song to mark the anniversary of Gagarin's launch on April 12.