ZThe cube that Begaiym Isaakova, 21, carefully takes out of the closet is ten by eleven centimetres. It is a cubesat, a small training satellite, which is being tinkered with here in the darkened room with the brightly colored oriental wallpaper, the old wooden tables and the electrodes lying around. Later, solar panels will be installed all around. Now you can still see the small round and square plates and electrodes and cables inside. Anything that will keep him alive later in space.
Isaakova is part of Kyrgyzstan’s all-women space program, the Kyrgyz Space Program, whose current eight members, aged 21 to 27, meet regularly here at their headquarters in the capital, Bishkek, to learn how to build a satellite. “Who run the space? Kyrgyz girls,” reads a heart-shaped card on the wall. It’s a reference to Beyoncé’s song “Run the World (Girls)” and a good description of what’s happening here: In 2024, the young women want to launch their satellite, a small cubesat, comparable to their training model – it would be the first satellite of the country in general: Kyrgyzstan has been independent since 1991 and does not have its own official space program. As part of the Soviet Union, the country collaborated on some projects. But since then, other problems such as poverty, lack of resources and poor infrastructure have become more pressing.
The fact that a group of young women is now reaching for the stars is particularly remarkable in Kyrgyzstan, where there is also serious gender injustice. According to UNICEF, in 2018, around 13.4 percent of Kyrgyz women under the age of 24 in Kyrgyzstan, which has a population of 6.6 million, were forced into marriage in some way. This also includes “ala kachuu”, the so-called “bride kidnapping”: a kidnapping that is often glorified as a cultural tradition, during which many of the girls and women also experience rape and domestic violence. Even if this is now forbidden by law and is primarily practiced in rural areas, traditional gender stereotypes also persist in the cities: “As a woman, you are expected to marry, have children and obey your husband,” says Kyzzhibek Batyrkanova, 27 , who heads the space project and is particularly concerned about the rise of radical religious tendencies and their consequences for women’s rights in the country, whose citizens actually live and interpret Islam in a more moderate way. For the young women, it’s not just about launching the first Kyrgyz satellite into space, they also want to show that Kyrgyz women can do it – that they can actually achieve anything they want.
The idea for the all-women program came from Bektour Iskender, co-founder of Kloop Media, an alternative media company that reports on politics, corruption and human rights violations in the country and has been teaching teenagers the craft of investigative research since 2007 as a media school. During a conference in Vancouver, Iskender met NASA’s Alex MacDonald, who told him about a new, inexpensive satellite.
At that time, Kloop Media had already offered a robotics course as peer-to-peer learning: 50 people took part, including only two women. Iskender wondered how Kyrgyz girls could get more interested in MINT subjects (mathematics, computer science, natural sciences and technology), which are still considered “boys’ subjects” not only in Kyrgyzstan. This gave rise to the idea of initiating a satellite program exclusively for girls and young women.