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How Teen Girls Are Leading the Country of Kyrgyzstan to Space


Why Global Citizens Should Care
Women are often underrepresented in STEM. The Kyrgyz Space Program, funded by Patreon crowdsourcing, is empowering women in Kyrgyzstan to send the first country’s satellite to space. You can join us in taking action on this issue here

A dozen young women based in Kyrgyzstan’s capital city Bishkek are building the country’s first satellite and plan on launching it in 2019, with the help of crowdfunding, TED reports.

Together, young women ages 17 and 25 who are enrolled in the Kyrgyz Space Program are building a "CubeSeat," a microsatellite used to conduct scientific research in low Earth orbit that’s a cheaper and simpler rocket alternative with which they hope to send and receive signals. To do it, they’re using the coding, 3D printing, and engineering skills they’re learning in the program, and Patreon donations are helping them do it. 

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If they receive additional funding, they’re toying with the ideas of creating a second satellite to turn garbage from space into CubeSeat fuel and take photos of the Tibetan plateau, which has rarely been photographed by satellite. 

It all started in March 2018, when journalist Bektour Iskender created Kyrgyz Space Program to teach young women how to make satellites. Iskender already had some experience leading ambitious projects after co-founding Kloop, a peer-to-peer journalism school for young people that grew to become one of Kyrgyzstan’s top news sources. 

Building upon Kloop’s coding curriculum, Iskender figured out how to bring space into the picture in 2016 with the help of NASA executive Alex MacDonald. When Iskender introduced a robotics program at Kloop, only two out of the 50 people who signed up were women. Even at Kloop, an outlet known for its progressive politics and coverage of LGBTQ and feminist issues, Iskender noticed gender equality was still an issue. 

“It was reflective of a problem in Kyrgyz society: girls are brought up with an attitude that technology is not for them,” Iskender said of the robotics enrollment. 

The underrepresentation of women in science extends beyond Kloop. United Institute for Statistics reported less than 30% of the world’s researchers working in science are women. 

Read More: The Only Female Horsewhip Maker in Kyrgyzstan Is Also One of the Best

Motivated by the imbalanced turnout, Iskender and Kloop co-founder Rinat Tuhvatshin created a robotics class specifically for women in 2017. Kloop invited women and girls with coding experience to enroll in the course. This time, almost 50 women tried signing up, and now a group of a dozen of them meets twice a week to learn from two Kloop alumni.

“At first I thought this idea was crazy; now I clearly see that it’s brilliant,” Aiganysh, a 21-year-old member of the Kyrgyz Space Program, told TED. “This experience has definitely changed my mindset. It’s made me believe that with passion, anything is possible.”

Kyrgyzstan, where 30% of the population lives below the poverty line, needs more empowering programs for women like the Kyrgyz Space Program. Sexual harassment is rarely reported there, police refuse to process domestic violence complaints, and 1 in 5 girls and women are kidnapped and forced into marriage.

Iskender worries Kyrgyz Space Program won’t single-handedly solve gender inequality in Kyrgyzstan, but he believes the program will inspire change.

“Women in our country are physically and spiritually strong. All we need is to believe in ourselves and get external support,” said Kyzzhibek, a 23-year-old on the team. 

Right now Kyrgyz Space Program runs exclusively on Patreon donations, but they’re seeking private grants to fund the second more complex satellite. 

Now, we’ve all seen Hidden Figures — with enough support, it’s only a matter of time before women around are world are leading the most ambitious projects in space.