updated 4/4/2006 6:20:54 PM ET 2006-04-04T22:20:54

Plans to send the first South Korean into space have been delayed by a year because of a lack of seats, South Korea said Tuesday.

A South Korean astronaut was scheduled to hitch a ride on a Russian spacecraft in April 2007, but the United States has to take that seat to rotate crew at the international space station, according to the South Korean Science and Technology Ministry.

Russian President Vladimir Putin offered last year to help send a South Korean to the space station, but seats have been sparse since the February 2003 explosion of the space shuttle Columbia.

Although the shuttle Discovery visited the station in July, problems with the foam insulation on its external fuel tank have led NASA to depend solely on the Russians for cargo and astronaut delivery to the space station.

A Soyuz rocket took off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome last week, bringing a Russian-American crew and a fresh load of supplies, equipment and experiments to the station.

The spaceship, which reached the station Saturday, also carried a Brazilian cosmonaut into orbit for the first time, stirring widespread enthusiasm in Brazil, which joined the space station project in 1997.

South Korea is not a member of the project, and member countries take priority in allocating spaceship seats, the Science and Technology Ministry said.

Russia is also setting aside seats on the three-person Soyuz spacecraft for paying space passengers, including one this fall for Japanese millionaire Daisuke Enomoto and another for Hungarian-American billionaire Charles Simonyi . Russian news media have indicated that Simonyi could fly in spring of 2007 — on the very mission in which South Korea had hoped to participate.

Despite the delay, the Science and Technology Ministry said it would nonetheless begin the process later this month of selecting a candidate to become the first South Korean astronaut in 2008.

About 300 people will be selected by July, and two final candidates chosen by the end of the year, the ministry said.

The two will undergo 15 months of training before one is selected for the trip.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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