Sky's not the limit: young women build Kyrgyzstan's first satellite

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Reaching for the stars will no longer be impossible for girls and young women in Kyrgyzstan, who aim to build and launch the country’s first satellite before 2020.

A dozen budding female scientists have been tinkering with computers, 3D printers and soldering irons since March to build a CubeSat, which U.S. space agency NASA describes as being the smallest and cheapest satellite used for space exploration.

“I feel very proud that it’s going to be the first satellite of the country. I’m doing this program because I want to empower other girls,” said 23-year-old student Kyzzhibek Batyrkanova during a Skype interview from the capital Bishkek.

“Your gender doesn’t have to determine what you have to do in this life.”

It is a rare path for any Kyrgyz, let alone a woman, given that nearly two-thirds of people in the mountainous Central Asian country live in rural areas, and the economy relies on farming, according to the United Nations.

Women make up less than 10 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), and construction and manufacturing graduates, the U.N. Development Programme says.

“Some girls don’t have courage to pursue such studies because it’s not very common in our country, and the majority of parents discourage their daughters from pursuing this,” said 19-year-old Alina Anisimova, who is leading the satellite project.

“I wish that in the future, people will not consider it so surprising to see young women who do welding or who are involved in engineering,” said the computer programer.

She is one of the young women, aged between 17 and 24, working on the project, which was started by Kloop Media, a local media group, after a chance meeting with senior NASA staff Alexander MacDonald, who suggested the ambitious idea.

According to Kloop’s crowdfunding page for the project, the construction and launch of Kyrgyzstan’s first CubeSat will cost up to $150,000. The final stages of the build will be made in partnership with a Lithuanian company.

“(Building a satellite) can serve as a powerful social and political signal,” MacDonald told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “It can send important messages into who is able to participate and build the future.”

Even though the number of women in STEM has increased in recent years, they still only account for about 30 percent of the world’s researchers, the U.N cultural agency UNESCO says.

Aidana Aidarbekova, a 19-year-old student participating in the project, said girls and women in her country are expected to marry instead of pursuing a career.

“There are a lot of people who don’t believe that girls are capable of doing anything else but cleaning and cooking and giving birth to children,” said Aidarbekova.

Nearly one in 10 girls in Kyrgyzstan is married off before the age of 18, according to global charity Girls Not Brides, even though bride kidnapping was outlawed in 2013.

Aidarbekova said she hopes the space project will inspire girls in her country and beyond.

“We are doing this program because we want to prove that girls can actually do it,” she said. “We want to be a hope, not only in Kyrgyzstan, but maybe our project will give hope to girls all around the world.”