Korean astronaut living in Puyallup now talks like a local

Korean astronaut Soyeon Yi gives the thumbs up before boarding a Soyuz rocket on April 8, 2008.
Korean astronaut Soyeon Yi gives the thumbs up before boarding a Soyuz rocket on April 8, 2008. Courtesy

Soyeon Yi is starting to sound like a local. She’s gardening and complaining about traffic congestion.

“I have my own small garden behind my house like other Puyallup people,” she said Tuesday. “The only thing that makes me annoyed is (state Route) 167.”

But Yi isn’t the average Puyallup resident.

The 37-year-old transplant who moved here last year was the first Korean to fly in space.

Even with her impressive résumé, the former astronaut is still trying to land a full-time job.

“I would love to be part of the commercial space sector,” Yi said.

I have to find the right fit.

Soyeon Yi, first Korean astronaut on job hunting in the greater Puyallup area.

She has feelers out at Kent-based Blue Origin, a privately funded aerospace developer and manufacturer set up by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, but there’s no word yet on whether she’ll land a full-time job.

For now, she’s working part-time with Pierce College developing an advanced STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) program for high school students looking to receive college credit.

She also has a teaching gig lined up at Everett Community College starting in January.

She also will travel to New York in January to begin promoting an episode of “Secret Space Escapes” that will air on Discovery Science channel.

She said the show’s crew has already finished filming the episode, which features her space mission’s unexpected fiery re-entry in April 2008.

The other crew members also survived the accident.

Yi said the episode is appropriately titled “Fireball.”

My capture was surrounded by fire.

Soyeon Yi discussing her re-entry flight at the end of her space mission, which will be featured on the Discovery Science channel.

Yi is looking forward to launching Pierce College’s STEM program next summer.

“We’re focusing more on international students,” she said. “For local students, we want them to experience new cultures.”

In the meantime, Yi said she will continue to look for full-time work, which she says is historically difficult for people in her field.

One former astronaut she knows took a job with the United Nations, she said, because it’s the only job he could get.

Yi said she’s enjoyed settling into Puyallup with her optometrist husband. She recently returned from her first trip home to Korea in three years to attend her brother’s wedding.

She said it was nice to enjoy the countryside and “cheap, good local food.”

Puyallup remains a quieter alternative than what she was used to back home.

Korea’s space program started and ended with Yi. After the government announced the space-travel competition, she survived mental and physical tests, interviews and other challenges to make it into a group of 30 finalists. Then a TV show was launched, thrusting Yi into the public arena in “American Idol” fashion. She was selected as a finalist in 2006.

Yi said it’s nice to be relieved of her international-icon status in Puyallup, though she still receives some attention.

After a Pierce County boy read about Yi in The News Tribune last year, he decided he wanted to become the first Samoan American astronaut. Yi agreed to meet with him, and offered lots of advice for how to achieve that goal.

It was one way she could keep busy and give back while searching for her next opportunity.

“I have to find the right fit,” she said.

Kari Plog: 253-597-8682, @KariPlog