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Commentary | Sky’s the limit for Kentucky Aerospace

Space Science students assembling the CXBN CubeSat in the Spacecraft Integration and Assembly Facility at Morehead State University
Dr. Ben Malphrus and the 21 meter Ground Station at Morehead State University
Space Tango/Exomedicine experiments being installed on ISS, February 23, 2017
SpaceX 10 on the pad (original Apollo pad) at Kennedy Space Center. Full complement of Space Tango/Exomedicine experiments on-board
The Electromagnetic Anechoic Chamber at the Space Science Center at Morehead State University

D. Stewart Ditto II, 1st Lt, USMC (Ret) is Executive Director of the Kentucky Aerospace Industry Consortium, which on Tuesday, May 23, is hosting the Manufacturing in Space symposium at the Galt House Hotel in Louisville. This half-day workshop brings together entrepreneurs, investors, space professionals, NASA scientists, advanced manufacturing leaders, and others to explore the various opportunities and challenges now being made possible through the design and manufacturing of dynamic new “products” off the planet Earth.

Kentucky and Aerospace?

As Kentuckians we are all used to the stereotype. Whenever we travel anywhere outside the state, we are recognized for the same three things: bourbon, horses, and KFC. Now don’t get me wrong, I am proud of these illustrious pieces of Kentucky lore and history! But as many of my fellow Kentuckians can attest, there is much more to our commonwealth. In fact, we are on the cusp of adding another major success to our list.

That industry is Aerospace…

Have I lost anyone yet?

Nearly every time I meet with individuals across the state, I get surprised looks when I describe the incredible things being done in Kentucky aerospace. In fact, aerospace products are currently Kentucky’s #1 export. We are #2 in the entire U.S., behind only Washington! In 2016, Kentucky had $10.85 billion in aviation and aerospace exports.

It was 2015 when Kentucky finally recognized aerospace when export data was released to show that Kentucky had $8.7 billion in aerospace exports. At that time the state legislature passed House Joint Resolution 100, which mandated that the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, the Cabinet for Economic Development, and the Kentucky Commission on Military Affairs study the who, what, and why of the aerospace industry. While this study will not be completed until September of this year, we have learned many compelling things about this thriving industry. Primarily, we have already discovered that these industries consist of over 600 companies across Kentucky and employ 17,500 people.

Why Kentucky? Why not?

We have two major shipping airport hubs (soon to be three) that can ship any product anywhere in the world, while most states have none. We are a day’s drive from 65 percent of the U.S. population, and have numerous interstates and rail that allow the transport of tons of product and packages daily. Kentucky is a logistical dream for companies looking to grow and expand their business. We also have a large potential workforce, and a low cost of living expense.

Why can’t Kentucky be not only a center for manufacturing excellence, but also a center for technology growth in aerospace? Why should Kentucky not be the leading source for aerospace parts and products? Why wouldn’t we strive to lead the nation in innovative technology for space exploration?

Are you getting the picture yet?

CXBN-2 Flight and Engineering Models in the Spacecraft Integration and Assembly Facility at Morehead State University

We do have many of the big aerospace companies, including Raytheon, Lockheed, Belcan, Safran, and GE. But aside from those larger corporations we have 600 other companies, some of them doing things that aren’t being done anywhere else in the world. Take Space Tango for instance. They are one of a handful of entities in the entire world that have their own lab on the International Space Station (ISS) conducting experiments. In fact, most recently on the Space X launch, February 19, 2017, a new batch of experiments were launched and installed on ISS by the astronauts onboard while communicating with Space Tango President and CEO Twyman Clements.

Space Tango is beginning to enter many interesting fields related to microgravity experimentation. Another piece of Space Tango is their research in exomedicine, which is a way to utilize the microgravity environment of space to potentially discover different ways to treat and hopefully cure diseases.

It doesn’t stop there.

Kentucky’s universities are also leading the way in many different fields in aviation and aerospace. UK, Uof L, EKU, and Morehead State all have well-known programs involved in aviation and aerospace. Morehead State’s space program is even sending satellites into space! In fact, Dr. Ben Malphrus at MSU is about to send a satellite into orbit on an important X-ray astronomy mission, and in 2018 he and his team will be sending another satellite to the moon.

“Our R&D efforts have led to the launch of five small spacecraft into space. We will launch a sixth this year, the Cosmic X-Ray Background Explorer. The coolest thing, though, is that we are leading a NASA mission called Lunar IceCube that will make its way to orbit the Moon to investigate the location and abundance of water ice. These missions represent incredible opportunities for young people to prepare for careers in aerospace, which they can now pursue in Kentucky.” Dr. Ben Malphrus

So what’s next?

Where does Kentucky go from here? One of the biggest things we have learned from all the studies and research into Kentucky’s aerospace industry is that we now have all the pieces needed to continue to grow exponentially. One major part is that we have a very supportive state government, in all branches and on both sides of the political aisle. On October 5, 2016, Lt. Governor Jenean Hampton helped organize and start the Kentucky Aerospace Industry Consortium. The goal of the consortium is to promote and grow the aerospace industry in Kentucky. This consortium will seek to gain memberships in order to create partnerships and collaboration from all aspects of this industry.

“With the aerospace and aviation industry serving as Kentucky’s number one export, it is critical to build positive momentum through a unified effort across the commonwealth,” said Lt. Governor Hampton.

The most exciting part is that we are just now beginning to realize the potential for this industry. We currently live in a time of rapidly growing technology that at the same time is also shrinking in physical size. This opens up the door for innovations at every level, and paves the way for Kentucky to make waves worldwide in aerospace.

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