I am pleased and humbled to announce that for the first time, as far as I know, students from schools, colleges, and universities in Bangladesh will have the opportunity to write code for space robot onboard the International Space Station (ISS) alongside Australia, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Philippines, Rep. of Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, United Arab Emirates, Vietnam. Some of you may have heard that Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) launched a Kibo-RPC (Robot Programming Competition) for the Asia zone countries.
Recently, NASA launched three AstroBee free-flying robots in the ISS to operate as a payload. The purpose of these robots is to assist astronauts and offload some of their work. These robots are the replacement for MIT-NASA’s SPHERES. JAXA is the first agency that will get to use NASA’s AstroBee for the Kibo RPC to find a leak point inside the Station by collecting information. I am very much excited to see how Bangladesh students will write code to control AstroBee. It is a rare and groundbreaking opportunity.
Ever since I was a child, I have always dreamed of going to the Moon. I had such a great fascination with space that I made my own telescope when I was 10 years old just so I could view the moon and stars night after night. Over the course of my career, my life circumstances caused me to work in many different fields within technology, but I never imagined that I would one day end up at the MIT Space System Laboratory and get the chance to work alongside so many brilliant space scientists and astronauts.
During my first session with astronauts aboard the ISS, I noted how students from the US and nations around the world were writing code to control ISS robots. That is when I thought, “Why not Bangladesh?”. Since then, I strategized numerous ways to bring this opportunity to my beloved homeland. I found out that for Bangladeshi students to get the chance to participate in ISS activities, Bangladesh had to first become an ISS sponsor country. The big obstacle here, however, was those sponsor countries are required to contribute $100,000 each year to help fund STEM education on the ISS. Unfortunately, investing in education doesn’t result in an immediately tangible effect, and most are unwilling to take a financial risk on something of this nature. I searched for benefactors and funding sources in numerous ways and met with many high officials, but I was unable to find a single sponsor who was willing to help support this program. During my visit to Bangladesh last year, I gave talks about Zero Robotics at a few universities to gauge student interest. The enthusiasm for space research and the possibility of student participation was palpable everywhere I spoke. Therefore, after I came back to the States, I focused my energy on making something like Zero Robotics possible via Japan’s Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).
Last January, JAXA representatives came to visit MIT and requested us to help them build a system similar to Zero Robotics. For a year and a half, I stayed in correspondence with JAXA and offered my support from time to time. This gave me the opportunity for my own request to them–I asked JAXA if it would be possible to add Bangladesh to their member country list. In reply, they told me that they will discuss this matter with their government and get back to me.
After one year, this January 2020, JAXA informed me that the Japanese government had agreed to officially add Bangladesh as a participant nation in JAXA’s KIBO-ABC program. I presented this exciting news to the Bangladeshi government and received very positive feedback from several academic institutions. At the end of April, I arranged my first online meeting with members from those centers, and together we were able to submit 50+ teams of students from a diverse range of schools, including but not limited to BUET, BRAC, NSU, USTC, CUET, and Space Innovation Camp. Presently, JAXA is currently processing these applications. Though Bangladesh will not be able to participate in the 1st competition due to some logistical issues, JAXA has graciously allowed our students to join as observers, get the chance to practice with the simulator, and watch the competition amongst students from other countries. My hope is that Bangladesh will be able to join in an official competing capacity when the second Kibo-RPC (Robotics Programming Competition) kicks off in December 2020.
Programs like Zero Robotics are very expensive. They require valuable time from astronauts, usage of ISS technology, and so many more logistical costs. We are truly lucky that JAXA is offering this invaluable program to Bangladesh at no cost. It would behoove us to take advantage of this rare opportunity. Since this project has come to light, I have been in communication with dedicated, knowledgeable people from several Bangladeshi institutions. My sincere thanks to those who have encouraged and collaborated with me to bring this program to life.
Though Bangladesh has participated in a number of space programs in the past, I strongly believe that continued exposure to and participation in programs like these are very necessary for Bangladeshi students. In particular, the KIBO-RPC provides benefits that include but are certainly not limited to: 1) it comes in a packaged form that allows students to learn science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in a collaborative, interactive and accessible way, 2) the final competition runs inside the ISS which allows students to see direct real-world application of their work, 3) students receive an unprecedented chance to interact and work with astronauts. The long-term and widespread benefits of participating in this type of competition come in the form of improvement of several markers of quality of life, such as increased social capital and economic advancement as individuals and as a nation.
Presently, approximately 60% of job openings worldwide require basic STEM literacy, and 40% require advanced. The biggest skills gaps are in advanced computing and quantitative knowledge. 62% of companies report problems finding qualified applicants for jobs that require advanced computer/IT knowledge, and 41% report problems for jobs requiring advanced quantitative knowledge. This program will help close these gaps and build more bridges.
As economic and social disparities continue to worsen and infrastructures buckle under increasing pressure, Bangladesh’s large population feels like a heavy burden. However, this very same population can also be our best asset if and when we are able to give our children a platform to educate themselves. In order for our nation to advance in all sectors, we must divest ourselves of the scarcity mindset and instead adopt an abundance mindset. There is a reason our nation was given so many people. We are a collectivist culture. We are meant to share resources and lift each other up. If we provide for the children of our nation, ALL the children of our nation, they will return these blessings to our nation in spades. They will build their own industries, rockets, satellites, factories, solid social and economic infrastructures themselves. There will no longer be a need to rely heavily on other nations since we will have the very best talent right at home. We will never know the discoveries and advancements that we missed out on because we didn’t educate the child who was supposed to come up with the idea. Let’s stop missing out. Let’s start working together.
My slogan is “Access to quality education is a fundamental human right”. We are all composed of the same particles. On average, the genetic variation between two human beings is only 0.6%. Though we are born with different strengths and weaknesses, we all possess the ability to improve and cultivate talent through proper nurturing from our environment. The major difference between a child born in a poor household and a child born in a rich household is the privileges that each will receive growing up. Due to drivers of structural poverty, many children never receive the opportunity to get a quality education. Every child deserves a chance.
My goal is to bring Kibo-RPC and similar educational programs to all children in Bangladesh. We are at the very, very beginning of this process at the moment, and progress will require the help and dedication of many people. Though interactive STEM education for all seems like an impossible goal right now, I have seen the excitement, drive, and ambition that our people have even in the midst of this terrible pandemic. More than ever, we need to provide kids with a morale-booster and a platform to increase their knowledge. It may take time. We will have setbacks. But together, we will be able to achieve and overcome any obstacle.
Mizanul Hoq Chowdhury
Zero Robotics Administrator and Architect
Scientist, MIT AstroBee Research and Development
MIT Space Systems Laboratory
Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics
Chief Architect of RAIDAR Music Project
MIT Connection Science
Member of NASA SPHERES/AstroBee Working group