In July, Bhutan launched its first satellite from the International Space Station, joining a growing list of small countries that have successfully sent CubeSats – microsatellites only 10x10x10 centimeters large – into orbit. Bhutan follows Ghana, Mongolia, Estonia, Bangladesh, and Latvia in having sent such a satellite into space — and it won’t be the last country to do so.
Bektour Iskender, a Senior TED Fellow and founder of citizen journalism outlet Kloop, is convinced that Kyrgyzstan could be next. In a Facebook post on September 8 he wrote, “Kyrgyzstan will also join the list [of countries launching CubeSats], only our situation will be special.” While a team of engineers designed Bhutan’s satellite, the CubeSat in development in Bishkek is entirely the work of teenage girls.
Since March 2018, a team of ambitious young women in Kyrgyzstan has been meeting weekly in Kloop’s office (though this week they finally got their own space) to get lessons about basic programming, soldering, and prototyping. It’s no accident that the only people tinkering with the 3D printer or Arduino widgets are young women — Iskender envisioned the Kyrgyz Space Program as a girls-only project to fight gender stereotypes and give girls a chance to make history.
“We’re fed up with discrimination against girls and women in Kyrgyzstan. We’re fed up with how many girls are raised to be servants,” Kloop wrote in its announcement of the project earlier this year. “We’re tired of hearing tens of thousands of stories of horrifying injustice towards women.”
While several Kyrgyz NGOs have launched media campaigns to get young people invested in gender issues and some parliamentarians have struggled to protect women’s rights through law, Kloop is coming at the problem from a different angle. The Kyrgyz Space Program got to work giving young women the tools and training they need to change the world, one LED light at a time.
Even with a break for summer holidays, the girls have made steady progress. While the Space Program participants develop their tech skills, assisted by local and international trainers (also women), Iskender has been working hard to raise funds to build and launch the microsatellite. Fortunately, it’s cheaper than you might expect to send a CubeSat into space – only about $100,000.
At the moment, the Space Program is entirely supported by crowdfunding. By June 2018, the Space Program had raised about $3,400, enough to buy a 3D printer and some necessary materials for building a prototype. Kloop is hoping to raise another $10,000 this year, a goal that seems within reach for the Space Program. As of September 4, 104 patrons, most of whom Iskender says are locals, contributed almost $900 a month – and the number just keeps growing.
For now, the Kyrgyz Space Program will remain a private sector project. It hasn’t received funding from any Western initiatives, like ProgrammerAyimdar, another coding program for young women in Kyrgyzstan that’s sponsored by the U.S. Embassy’s Democracy Commission, or even from Kyrgyzstan’s own government. “I think it’s okay when the government sponsors these kinds of initiatives, but that’s not Kyrgyzstan’s case,” Iskender told The Diplomat. “We’ve never been contacted by the government about this.” (Perhaps this is not surprising, given Kloop’s troubled relationship with the current administration.)
Without the luck of natural resource wealth like its neighbors, Kyrgyzstan’s economy is largely fueled by remittances sent from labor migrants working in Russia or Turkey. Given this reality, a growing tech industry in Bishkek would seem to be just the thing Kyrgyzstan’s government would want to support.
Meanwhile, in Baetov — a village in the mountainous and sparsely-populated Naryn region about a 7-hour drive from Bishkek’s 3D printers and consistent internet access — 17-year old Barusman Sharshenbekov has been tackling programming and prototyping projects not so different from the Space Program participants. “I decided to make shepherds’ lives easier, because they don’t always have electricity,” Sharshenbekov told CurrentTimeAsia on August 22. He designed a solar-power kalpak, fitting the traditional wool hat worn by Kyrgyz nomads for centuries with pieces from a flashlight and DVD player to convert sunlight into enough electricity to charge a smartphone.
Sharshenbekov’s DIY tinkering and the girls working with Kyrgyz Space Program share a scrappy determination to make the world a better place through technology. The question of the best path to unlocking that potential — whether it should be driven by the private sector or guided by government efforts — remains yet unanswered.