South Koreans are celebrating the launch of their country's first space traveler.   Yi So-yeon has become the first South Korean woman to blast into orbit on her way to a research mission on the International Space Station.  VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Seoul the space mission is doubling as a major source of Korean national pride.

A gala party atmosphere prevailed in the South Korean capital, where about 5,000 people gathered in a downtown plaza to watch a broadcast of astronaut Yi So-yeon's liftoff aboard a Russian rocket launched from Baikonur, Kazahstan.

South Korea's SBS network also brought the event live to television viewers around the country.  With minutes to go before the launch, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak addressed the Seoul crowd on the event's importance.

Mr. Lee calls the launch "another miracle of the Han River," referring to the large waterway that runs through Seoul.  He says Korea is now joining the space generation, and that Yi So-yeon is giving hope to young Koreans everywhere.

Then, the crowd of thousands joined in for the final seconds of the countdown, and exploded in cheers as they watched live images of the Soyuz rocket launch.

Astronaut Yi is the 49th woman in space, and only the second Asian woman.  South Korean authorities selected her from more than 30,000 applicants. 

Until last month, Yi was the backup astronaut for the mission, before male astronaut Ko San was stripped of his first-in-line status in a controversy over security regulations.

She is scheduled to spend 10 days aboard the International Space Station conducting a series of experiments related to her specialty in bioengineering.  She is also expected to take detailed photographs of the Korean peninsula, in order to observe the movements of yellow dust storms from China and Mongolia that cake South Korea each spring.

In a pre-launch interview, Yi said she would approach her mission like building a house - step-by-step, starting with a strong foundation.

Yi says she is excited rather than afraid, and says she will try to remain as calm as she did during her months of training exercises.

Astronaut Yi has said she hopes her launch will also be inspirational to North Korea, which remains technically at war with the South.  She is expected to spend two days aboard the Soyuz capsule with two Russian cosmonauts before it docks Thursday with the International Space Station.