South Korea has almost finished selecting the country's first astronaut, whose work is to make scientific strides aboard the International Space Station. The country's leadership is also presenting the planned mission as a rallying call for national pride. VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Seoul.

When the Ministry of Science and Technology here in Seoul announced it planned to send a South Korean into space, it received more than 36,000 applications.

This week, the contest was whittled down to just two.

In a gala Christmas day ceremony broadcast live on South Korea's SBS television network, South Korean authorities awarded the honor to Go San, a 30-year old male expert in artificial intelligence, and Yi So-yeon, a 28-year old female doctoral candidate in biosystems research.

The two passed a rigorous set of physical, professional and intellectual tests on the way to selection, culminating in a final round of live TV questioning in which the South Korean public could vote electronically for their favorite.

The two are scheduled to start a year-long training program next March at Russia's Gagarin Space Institute near Moscow.  It is not yet decided which of the two will board a Russian Soyuz rocket scheduled to take off in April 2008 for the International Space Station -- and who will stay on the ground as a reserve astronaut. 

Go San, the male finalist, offered special thanks to his mother for helping him succeed.

Go praises his mother for raising him and his sister by herself. Go's father died when he was a boy.

Female finalist Yi So-yeon promised not to let her fellow South Koreans down.

She says she hopes to use her role as an astronaut to increase confidence among South Korean women.

The South Korean space mission costs about $26 million. Critics say it is an expensive opportunity for South Korean politicians to show off.

Choi Gi-hyuk, Director of Seoul's space program, says of course there is an element of national pride in the project -- but it mainly involves hard science.

He says the ultimate goal is to do experiments and produce findings beneficial to the country's industry and its scientific knowledge base. 

This is the first time South Korea plans to put a person into space. It has launched 11 satellites into orbit, and the country's scientists are developing rocket technology.

In true Korean form, the country's world-famous dish -- kimchi - is also planned to be on the ride into orbit.

Kim Sung-soo, a scientist at the Korea Food Research Institute, says one of his challenges has been to make the pungent hot pepper and garlic space travel-compatible.

Kim says he was afraid other astronauts would complain about kimchi's strong odor in the confined space quarters, something he hopes to overcome by drying and vacuum-packing. He describes kimchi as a much-needed morale boost for any South Korean space traveler.