MOREHEAD — When people talk about diversifying an Eastern Kentucky economy dominated for a century by coal mining and poverty, they often don't aim very high: low-wage factories and corporate call centers.
But you can see another possibility at Morehead State University's Space Science Center. Over the past decade, in partnership with the Kentucky Science and Technology Corp. and the University of Kentucky, the center has become a world leader in designing and building small, high-tech spacecraft of the future.
One morning last week, I stood with Kris Kimel, president of KSTC, in the center's control room as engineers used computers to locate two Morehead-built satellites now circling the Earth. Faculty and students use the control room to download data and upload instructions to the satellites as they pass within range of one of the world's biggest space-tracking antennas, visible out the window on a nearby hilltop.
"This is a different kind of call center," Kimel said.
Lexington-based KSTC was created 27 years ago as a non-profit corporation to develop innovation-driven, entrepreneurial companies in Kentucky. A decade ago, Kimel saw an opportunity to grow Morehead's already strong astrophysics program in a new direction.
He realized that the micro-technology then revolutionizing computers and cellphones would also change spacecraft, especially as NASA was turning over much of its traditional work to private industry. Somebody needed to design and build this new stuff, Kimel thought. Why couldn't it be done in Kentucky?
"We knew we had really smart people here; we knew we had smart students," he said. "But we had to be aggressive and ambitious and move quickly."
KSTC set up a lab in California's Silicon Valley. Benjamin Malphrus, chairman of Morehead's Department of Earth and Space Sciences, and UK engineering professor James Lumpp spent several weeks there in 2005 with about 20 graduate students, learning all they could about new satellite technology.
They collaborated with engineers at NASA and Stanford University. Among them was Robert Twiggs, who helped develop some of the first small satellites, including the CubeSat, which has become an industry standard. Twiggs left Stanford in 2009 and moved to Morehead to teach.
KSTC created Kentucky Space LLC in 2010 as a non-profit corporation to coordinate this university research with industry. Last week, KSTC created Space Tango, a for-profit enterprise, to commercialize the work.
Much of that work involves designing and building CubeSats, which are 10-centimeter cubes packed with off-the-shelf technology and powered by solar panels.
When launched from a rocket or the International Space Station, the satellites take advantage of space's zero-gravity environment to gather a variety of scientific and commercial research data. Other CubeSat uses range from tracking ships at sea to making high-resolution photographs of Earth for mapping and surveillance. Almost all of Kentucky Space's hardware and software is designed and built in Kentucky.
"We're trying to develop a home-grown set of technologies that can integrate into spacecraft," Malphrus said. "There's an incredible variety of applications people have thought of, but we don't even know what all the applications are yet."
Another Kentucky Space product is the DM processor, whose development was funded by the Defense Department. It is a supercomputer — 20 times more powerful than a desktop computer — that can be built into a small satellite for such applications as on-board processing of high-resolution images. It weighs about 12 ounces.
Kentucky Space, Morehead and UK have had several experiments on the Space Shuttle and International Space Station. They also have built two research platforms on the space station and are developing more.
"We're clearly one of the global leaders in trying to work on and design this next generation of spacecraft," Kimel said. "Our specialty is building small machines quickly."
Kentucky Space also recently announced a partnership with FedEx Corp. to develop a Space Solutions division to help global clients safely move payloads between laboratories and launch sites.
Morehead's space studies program now has about 60 students. This fall, it will start its first master's degree program, in space systems engineering, with 10 students. While many are from Eastern Kentucky, about one-third of the students are internationals who sought out Morehead, Malphrus said.
Kentucky Space and Space Tango are small, with five contract employees and one full-time engineer: Twyman Clements, 27, a UK engineering graduate who grew up on a farm near Bardstown. But Kimel said a half-dozen small companies already have been created out of Kentucky Space's work, and he said he thinks that is just the beginning.
Spacecraft might seem an unlikely Kentucky product, but it's not. Aerospace products have become Kentucky's largest export, edging out motor vehicles and parts, according to the state Cabinet for Economic Development. A diverse array of aerospace exports totaled $5.6 billion last year — 22 percent of the value of all Kentucky exports.
Economic development strategies are changing from the old model of luring corporate branch plants with jobs that are here today and may be gone tomorrow when incentives run out or cheaper labor is found elsewhere. There is more long-lasting economic impact in creating specialized knowledge and an environment where entrepreneurs can use it to create high-value companies.
"This is not just about education; we're growing a new industry here," Kimel said. "If we don't commercialize this technology, these students won't stay here, because there won't be opportunities for them.
"I'm not one of these people who thinks everyone should stay in Kentucky; they shouldn't," he added. "But for those that have the opportunity and want to, great. And we want people to come here from other places who are interested in this industry. We want them to say this is the place to be."
Eastern Kentucky has a long way to go in creating the workforce to support many high-tech companies, but Kentucky Space shows what is possible. It isn't the only answer for the region's economic challenges, but neither are low-wage factories and call centers.
"Kentucky historically has done an excellent job of putting together other people's ideas," Kimel said. "What we need to start doing is building our own ideas, because that's where the value proposition is. We have to find things that we can do better than anybody else."