The career of Kazakhstan's most famous geologist well illustrates the economic imperative behind scientific work, and the political influence scientific success could bring, during the Soviet period. Satpaev was born into an intellectual family in Bayanaul, Pavlodar Oblast, in 1899, in a village which now bears his name. His elder brother and two cousins died in prison camps in 1937, victims of Stalin's repression. Satpaev studied geology at the Tomsk Technological Institute, graduating in 1926. He was assigned to work at the Zhezkazgan copper deposit, where he concluded that reserves of copper were far larger than the estimates made by earlier British and Soviet studies suggested. His work underpinned a major expansion of mining activity at Zhezkazgan, and earned Satpaev the Order of Lenin in 1940.
During World War II he helped organise the exploitation of manganese deposits at Zhezdy, in central Kazakhstan, following the seizure by the Germans in August 1941 of the main existing field under production. Manganese was an important component in the production of armoured steel, and so the rapid development of new reserves was vital for the Soviet war effort. Manganese ore from Zhezdy was being supplied to the steelworks in Magnitogorsk by as early as July 1942.
In 1942, Satpaev was appointed head of the Presidium of the Kazakh branch of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. He worked to set up a Kazakhstan Academy of Sciences, and was elected its first president in 1946. Infighting within the Kazakhstan academic community briefly caused him to lose the job in the 1950s, but he was re-elected president in 1955 and kept the post until he died. He took on political roles as a people's representative to both the Kazakhstan and USSR supreme soviets. In the days before he died in 1964 he was still talking about the development of the mineral resources of Kazakhstan.
Satpaev's name is given to the Geological Institute, streets, schools and villages across Kazakhstan, a town in Karaganda Oblast, a mountain peak, a gladiolus, a small star in the Taurus constellation, and the mineral 'satpayevite'.