Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan – Having grown up in one of the poorest and most conservative regions in Kyrgyzstan, 17-year-old Begaiym Isaakova never imagined she would work in tech, let alone be part of a team of young women building the country’s first spacecraft.
By age 15, Isaakova was shocked to see her peers in Jalal-Abad being married off, but not too surprised. The message that girls should prioritise knowing how to serve men started early and was everywhere, including in schools and homes.
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“Parents really influence this and say you’re not very good at studying and you should just learn how to cook and be a good wife,” she said.
Instead of being sent down the aisle in a country where early and forced marriage – including by bride kidnap – is common, Isaakova was sent to Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek, to finish high school.
She had planned to study the arts in university until she discovered the Kyrgyz Space Program – a group of 10 women aged 17 to 25 who are aiming to reach the stars by building and launching a satellite into space by 2021.
Its members meet daily to study physics, computer programming and 3D printing and to practise soldering. These are some of the small steps towards making a CubeSat – one of the smallest and cheapest satellites used by US space agency NASA – and a giant leap for womankind.
“The main idea of this project is to empower women because in our country we have some big problems with this, with gender discrimination,” said Ayzada Karataeva, 21, who left her job as a journalist last year to become a “satellite girl”.
The CubeSat is one of the many technologies that came from Apollo space research following NASA’s 1969 lunar landing.
Kyrgyzstan gained independence in 1991 and has no official space programme. As part of the Soviet Union, the country had factories making parts for a top-secret space programme, but only relics remain.
Starting an independent space initiative and finding about $150,000 to finance a satellite in Kyrgyzstan is a challenge. Most people in the small Central Asian nation live in mountainous areas and rely on farming, and about one-third of the population lives in poverty, according to UN figures.
The satellite girls’ project is financed by donations made on an online crowdfunding page.
They receive other free support from foreign embassies and organisations who link the women with mentors such as NASA rocket scientist Camille Wardrop Alleyne.
Alleyne’s charity, The Brightest Stars, aims to help girls from remote or less privileged places to work in STEM – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education programmes.
This includes a Girls and Cubes project designed to help more women reach the stars, so Alleyne was impressed to find a group of girls in Kyrgyzstan doing it by themselves.
“It’s just, wow. That they can take on something like this is just amazing,” she said.
Helping amateurs build CubeSats “is amazing because it has given access to people and countries who ordinarily would not have had access to space”, while NASA is still developing the model for further exploration, she said.
“Our first two CubeSats ever went interplanetary and flew by Mars back in November, so you know, it’s just really expanding,” Alleyne added.
Dreams about space
From the age of six or seven, Alleyne remembers spending most nights of her childhood in Trinidad lying on her dad’s car, staring up and wondering about the blackness.
“I grew up in this small dot in the middle of the Caribbean Sea as a little brown girl who had dreams about space and about planes, and I did not see any of that around me,” said Alleyne, who only discovered that astronauts, NASA and jobs in space existed at college.
Most members of the Kyrgyz Space Program had no prior background in science and technology, so they were pleased to find their dedicated online research had paid off and they knew most of Alleyne’s early teaching.
Aidana Aidarbekova, 19, studied engineering at a university in Hong Kong for a year before deciding to leave. She joined the space programme after her older sister left because of work commitments.
“I think for the first half year being in this project I learned more than at university, so I’m really happy now,” she said.
Aidarbekova’s 14-year-old sister attends an after-school technology course for 14 to 17-year-old girls, and her 11-year-old sister is desperate to follow in her sisters’ footsteps.
The courses are held at the offices of a young newspaper called Kloop that is known for challenging discrimination and promoting feminism and LGBTQ rights, and for publishing exposes with the help of new technology.
Kloop’s cofounder Bektour Iskender came up with the idea of an all-girl space programme after a TED event where he met NASA space economist Alex McDonald, who suggested building a CubeSat in Kyrgyzstan.
“They are often a jumping off point for countries building a spacecraft for the first time,” said MacDonald, who supports amateurs building them on the principle “that everyone can participate in space flight, wherever they are”.
Iskender initially took the comment as a joke and forgot about the idea until a year later, when the Kloop ran a mixed robotics course and only two of the 50 participants were girls.
“Everything is dominated by men”, from education to the workplace, said Iskender.
He started the project but said “now it is totally run by girls – I just find the contacts”.
Iskender said he hopes an all-female space launch will lead to a sense of national pride and belief in women and girls.
“Even the most misogynist people in Kyrgyzstan will be proud of this and they will kind of have to rethink their attitude. So let’s take a group of young women and turn them into national heroes and create a space where new role models will be born,” he said.
While people abroad support the satellite project, the response at home has been muted in the media and trolled online.
“Mostly we are criticised by men,” said 24-year-old Kyzzhibek Batyrkanova, the programme’s project coordinator, who can reel off the common jibes.
“‘You will all argue with each other because you are women and you are too emotional. ‘You will not be able to handle that. It’s a stupid idea. You’re not going to achieve your goal because it is impossible.’,” she recounted, before moving on to the anti-feminist remarks.
“People think feminism is something negative and radical” and about hating men, rather than equality, said Batyrkanova.
The trolling initially dampened the girls’ spirits, until Batyrkanova – who the group calls “cosmo mum” – told them to laugh off the comments and created a competition for the best one.
The group is now focused on signing a deal with a launch provider and to get further help in building their satellite from other amateurs-turned-experts.
This includes a group of former Lithuanian students whom MacDonald encouraged to build and launch their country’s first CubeSat from International Space Station in 2014. They now have a company that makes components for space agencies.
Aidarbekova said she hopes to also make it to the United States.
“I really want to work with Elon Musk, with SpaceX. His rockets – Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy – actually carry the nano-satellites, so I really want that for maybe our second launch or third launch,” she said.
The group wants to broadcast a feminist message from its satellite to tell women and girls everywhere even the sky is not the limit.
“We dream of our project promoting women working in STEM and in the regions too, and if we achieve what we want, it’s not just about launching the first satellite, it’s about getting more education in Kyrgyzstan,” said Isaakova.