In the mountains of Central Asia, nine young women are soldering their way to space. They make up the Kyrgyzstan Space Programme, a unique project working towards launching the country’s first ever satellite. But their goal isn’t just technological advancement for their country, which hasn’t had a space programme since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The so-called ‘satellite girls’ are on a mission to tear down gender norms and push women to the forefront of science – at a time when gender inequality is rife across the country. Kyrgyz police have been known to refuse domestic violence complaints while one in five women are kidnapped and forced into marriage.
The project was launched out of an independent journalism school, Kloop Media Foundation, after the organisation’s co-founders Bektour Iskender and Rinat Tuhvatshin recognised a huge gender disparity in the programming classes it offered: at first, two women showed up. When women-only robotics classes ran in 2017, more than 50 got involved.
A chance encounter with NASA executive Alex MacDonald was the catalyst that set the space programme in motion. He met Iskender and told him about CubeSats, the latest in relatively affordable microsatellites that can be built with basic tools. Two years later, when Iskender saw the success of their robotics classes, this tidbit of knowledge unlocked what he knew had to be their next project. It was time to push their women programmers to a new frontier: space.
In March 2018, applications opened and the project was promoted on social media. Hopeful women between 17 and 25 were asked to fill in a Google document detailing their strengths and interests. No experience was necessary.
“Usually when people write about our country, it’s about the oppression faced by women here,” says programme director Kyzzhibek Batyrkanova. “But now we have something positive to focus on and build towards.” The 24-year-old data scientist leads the team of hand-picked young women as they study the theory they need and learn to 3D print, code and solder. They’re funded via Patreon after they estimated their satellite would cost $150,000 to produce.
CubeSats are about 10cm and usually used for scientific research in low Earth orbit. Since they’re so small, there are no launch costs because they can be released from someone else’s spacecraft.
The exact purpose of their satellite is still up in the air. They have considered building something that transmits sound signals, or something that takes photos (which can be beamed back to Earth and used by the Kloop data journalists). They might embed the satellite with sensors which measure air quality or radiation levels. “We want it to be useful for our country,” Batyrkanova says. “Scientific advancement is exactly the point.”
Funding has been difficult, Batyrkanova says, but the response from the public has been “mostly positive”. However dabbling in grassroots space engineering hasn’t protected the team from misogyny.
The programme director explains: “Some people are concerned about the gender inequality – they say it’s unfair that it’s only girls. Others say girls shouldn’t be trusted to do it by themselves. Some even say we won’t be able to finish the project, because girls will argue and the team will split.”
But Batyrkanova isn’t intimidated by the challenge of turning a group of 17 to 25-year-olds into space engineers. “It just requires some funding… and a lot of discipline. And allow an adjustment period – for many of these women, it’s their first experience of work. Knowing that soon they have to put something in space! But with support, people’s enthusiasm will carry them through the challenges.”
There is a lack of practical physics teaching in Kyrgyzstan, Batyrkanova adds, and changing that is part of their plan. Only children in very privileged schools get to do experiments (30 per cent of the population lives in poverty) so those on the programme hope to make recommendations which will bring activities like soldering into the curriculum, It also produces a relatively small number of specialists – which is why the team has had to build relationships with experts overseas who advise and mentor them by video link.
The engineers hope to launch the satellite by the end of next year, but emphasise that this could change. “We’re doing everything from scratch,” Batyrkanova says. “It’s an amateur group of girls, some with no experience of technology, building the country’s only satellite, run by young journalists,” she laughs. “Anything could happen.”