Meet the pioneers running Kyrgyzstan’s all-woman space agency

In a country where women are seen first and foremost as wives and mothers, Kyrgyzstan’s all-female space agency defies expectations. Aged between 18 and 24, the eight-woman team are building a one-kilo satellite that will be the country’s first foray into the cosmos as an independent state. Based in Bishkek, they told The Calvert Journal what this project means for them— and thousands of girls like them.

10 September 2019
Text and image: Clara Marchaud

Kyrgyzstan’s space dreams collapsed alongside the Soviet Union. After pouring years of effort into various Soviet initiatives — including the scheme that saw Kyrgyz-born Salizhan Sharipov take on astronaut training in 1990 — the country’s scientific minds found themselves in flux, building a new, independent Kyrgyzstan with far more pressing priorities than reaching the stars. Sharipov made it into orbit in 1998 and again in 2004. He remains the only Kyrgyz ever to have visited space. Poverty, a lack of resources, and a deficit of infrastructure have all made it hard for Kyrgyzstan to rebuild a space agency of its own. A new programme seeks to change all that— but the country’s new generation of pioneers have one more obstacle to overcome: gender inequality.

If Kyrgyzstan’s scientific ambitions declined with the fall of the Soviet Union, then gender stereotypes strengthened. According to the UNICEF, 12 per cent of girls in Kyrgyzstan today get married before the age of 18. Some 12,000 Kyrgyz women are also abducted into marriage each year in a practice known as “bride kidnapping”. For its founders, the Kyrgyz Space Programme isn’t just about reaching orbit but “proving to the whole world that girls can create anything they want”.

The project was launched by Kloop Media Foundation, a Bishkek-based media outlet covering politics, corruption, and human rights violations. Kloop was founded in 2007 as a media school, equipping 14–27 year olds with all the reporting tools they need to carry out investigations.

The idea for the Kyrgyz Space Programme first cropped up a long way away from Kloop’s Bishkek office: it all started at the 2016 TED conference in Vancouver, Canada, where Bektour Iskender, Kloop’s co-founder, met Alex MacDonald, the programme executive for NASA’s Emerging Space initiative. This was when MacDonald had introduced a new, low cost satellite to Iskender. Peer-to-peer learning has always played a vital role for Kloop. The space programme felt like the next step, created to foster independent thinking among young women.

Some 12,000 Kyrgyz women are also abducted into marriage each year, in a practice known as “bride kidnapping”

Social media backlash has been fierce. But in the 18 months since the programme was announced, the eight women at the core of the team have already learnt how to code, how to use Arduino boards, and how to weld. Their end goal is to build Kyrgyzstan’s first satellite, currently scheduled to launch in 2021. The team is currently busy learning how to install sensors and captors on the device to measure magnetic fields, temperature, or movements. The team receives $1200 each month through online crowdfunding platform Patreon, and individual grants from the international media development NGO Internews. In total, they’ve already raised half of their $300,000 budget, most of which will go towards delivering the satellite into orbit.

But while the launch itself may still seem a long way off, the women have already succeeded in their first and most important goal: becoming role models for a whole generation of girls in Kyrgyzstan.

Alina Anisimova, 20

Alina started playing with computers after getting her hands on her family’s first PC at the age of seven. She hasn’t stopped since. “My mum would shout at me because I broke the computer so often,” she says. But although Alina loved understanding what made machines tick, she struggled to keep up at vocational college because she couldn’t afford a laptop. Instead, she began working at Kyrgyz media outlet Kloop, studying on the side.

When the organisation behind the website — the Kloop Media Foundation — decided to launch the Kyrgyz Space Programme back in early 2018 — Alina appeared to be the perfect ambassador. Others thought so too, and by the end of the year, she found herself on the BBC’s list of 100 inspiring women.

“I applied to the programme like everyone else, and only found out two weeks before it started that I would be a trainer, not a trainee,” she jokes. “I’m OK with computers, but satellites are scary.” Alina’s previous experience doesn’t mean that she hasn’t been forced out of her comfort zone, however. As well as dealing with the project’s admin and PR, learning to speak up to strangers has been hardest of all, she says.

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Anna Boyko, 20

Anna was studying German translation when she saw the Kyrgyz Space Agency advertised on Facebook. Like many others, she worried that the programme wasn’t for her. “Growing up, all I watched were cartoons where a princess met a prince, got married and had kids,” she said. “And perhaps that influenced me. Perhaps that was what I was thinking of.” It wasn’t until Anna took on an internship at an IT company that she became more confident in her own skills. “I thought that only the very best people could work in computing but during my internship, I realised that I was more capable than I thought. I could do these things too.” She joined the space program in August 2018 and dropped out of university several months later, focusing on physics, programming, and machine learning as well as soft skills like budgeting and public speaking.

The women run the space programme independently, with the help of mentors at home and abroad. “In Kyrgyzstan, nobody wants to work in STEM— and even if they do, most people emigrate,” Anna says. “With this project, we want to show that we can achieve all of these things right where we are.”

Kyzzhibek Batyrkanova, 24

I spent several weeks in the Soviet building that hosts the Kyrgyz Space Programme. One week, Kyzzhibek wasn’t there — and suddenly it seemed as if the whole team was lost without her. “She’s like our mum,” the others laugh. “Zhybek”, as the girls fondly refer to her, is the oldest team member and programme director. As an economics graduate from the American University of Central Asia, she’s also the most comfortable speaking English.

“Girls don’t even get to access education because of the belief that they should be getting married instead”

“I joined this project because I’ve always wanted to make education more accessible, especially for children who live in regions away from the capital,” she says. A quarter of the Kyrgyz population lives below the poverty line, with hardship largely affecting those in rural areas. Kyzzhibek’s parents were among those who moved away from the countryside in the 1990s, leaving her with a sharp appreciation for the opportunities the city has provided. “People who live in Bishkek have more opportunities, even to come to courses like this one,” she says. Starting next November, Kyzzhibek wants to use the skills she’s learnt to start her own programme to empower girls in rural areas. “Girls don’t even get to access education because of this belief that they should be getting married instead,” she says. “We want to talk to decision-makers in families and make them understand that it is economically beneficial for girls to study and work.”

Aizada Karataeva, 20

Aizada describes herself as an intersectional feminist: a rarity in Kyrgyzstan. On Women’s Day, she held a public lecture about the holiday and what it should mean for the country’s women. But sometimes, she feels as if she is fighting for a hopeless cause.

“We are a bit naive in feminist circles,” she says. “We believe that equality is essential, but really, most of the country believes that a woman is nothing without her husband.”

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Growing up in a “typical Soviet family,” Aizada also struggled to make her voice heard. Her parents hoped that she’d become a doctor and ensured she enrolled in medical school after graduating, alongside her sister. After two years, Aizada dropped out. Her parents, then living and working in Vladivostok in the Russian Far East, did not talk to her for six months.

“In Kyrgyzstan, the biggest problem is that our parents don’t teach us to go after what we want, or to make our own, thoughtful decisions,” Aizada says. Instead, relatives often put pressure on their children — and especially their daughters — to follow a pre-chosen path.

“Even if I feel that I’m equal to my husband, on my wedding day, all my relatives wanted for me was to respect him, to shut up when he spoke, and to continue his lineage,” she says. “For them, that’s what happiness looks like for a woman.”

Aidana Aidarbekova, 20

“Most of us are drop-outs,” Aidana jokes as I meet the team for the first time in their Bishkek office. She dropped out of the Chinese University in Hong Kong after taking a gap year at the Kyrgyz Space Programme in September 2018. She’d heard about the scheme several months earlier, but had been too nervous to apply. The idea brought back painful memories of training for a Maths Olympiad at the age of 14 with a handful of other female classmates. When they asked if they spend their time preparing for the competition, their teacher had laughed. “Girls, why are you bothering? The guys will beat you anyway.” Aidana didn’t participate in the Olympiad and stopped studying maths soon after. “Maybe that’s when this seed — the idea of doing something like this — was planted in me,” she says.

Aidana’s parents, meanwhile, still pressure her to head back to university. They’re concerned that unless she hurries, Aidana will be “too old to marry” by the time she graduates: average Kyrgyz bride married by the age of 20. “But what if I don’t want to be a housewife?” she says. “Is that every woman’s destiny?”

Begaiym Isaakova, 18

For Begaim, the Kyrgyz Space Programme was a sign from the universe. As a child she’d long dreamed of becoming an astronaut, devouring Elon Musk’s biography at her isolated boarding school in Jalal-Abad in southwestern Kyrgyzstan. Three years later, and she’s already met with some of her greatest space heroes, including former Kyrgyz cosmonaut Salizhan Sharipov and NASA aerospace engineer Camille Wardrop Alleyne. “I always believed that I was bad at science,” she says. “I doubted myself. But meeting people who work in this kind of sphere has inspired me incredibly.”

The programme has also transformed Begaim’s plans for the future. As a student, she often imagined moving to Russia or Europe. Now, she wants to stay in Kyrgyzstan, and plans to start studying telecommunications. “We all benefit from this program, but the greatest benefit will be for Kyrgyzstan,” she says. “It will motivate our country’s future generations.”

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