Tom Eblen

How a Lexington company got its research on the International Space Station

Space Tango's office in the 1895 Protestant Infirmary building on Short Street includes a wall of monitors with live video feeds from the International Space Station. The feeds will allow the company to monitor their equipment and clients’ experiments in space.
Space Tango's office in the 1895 Protestant Infirmary building on Short Street includes a wall of monitors with live video feeds from the International Space Station. The feeds will allow the company to monitor their equipment and clients’ experiments in space.

When a SpaceX rocket blasts off July 18 from Cape Canaveral to resupply the International Space Station, its cargo will include a high-tech metal locker the size of a small suitcase.

The locker was designed and built by a group of young engineers working in an unlikely place: an 1890s former hospital building in Lexington’s East End, around the corner from where Belle Brezing’s bordello used to stand.

The engineers work for Space Tango, a startup company that will become one of only a handful of firms with permanent research facilities aboard the $150 billion space station, which has been in low orbit around Earth since 1998.

Space Tango’s locker has room for 21 scientific experiments, which will start being brought to it on the next resupply rocket, scheduled for November.

Each experiment will be created inside an aluminum cube. An astronaut will open the locker and plug each cube into a power module. Space Tango clients will then be able to watch, monitor and control their experiments from Earth via the Internet.

21scientific experiments can fit in Space Tango’s initial locker

Space commercialization has opened a new frontier for business. Companies such as SpaceX now offer transportation, which used to be available only on NASA’s Space Shuttle. Space Tango and a few other companies are rushing to give corporate and university clients research platforms once they get to space.

“It’s a whole new era,” said Space Tango Chairman Kris Kimel. “With access to space and miniaturization of technology, you can do amazing stuff and it doesn’t cost millions of dollars.”

Kimel also is president of the Kentucky Science and Technology Corp., which in 2005 created Kentucky Space as a non-profit organization to work with Kentucky universities on cutting-edge space technology such as tiny satellites. Space Tango was created two years ago to commercialize some of that technology.

So what kind of “amazing stuff” might companies pay Space Tango to help them do?

Much of it involves exomedicine, an emerging field that seeks solutions to human health problems in space. Those solutions range from new drugs to growing tissue and organisms in microgravity space environments where biological systems may react differently than they do on Earth.

“It’s plants to cell cultures to drug design to invertebrate organisms for regenerative medicine,” said Twyman Clements, a University of Kentucky engineering graduate who is Space Tango’s president and CEO. “We built (research modules) to do a broad spectrum of things.”

Clements, 29, is one of Space Tango’s two full-time employees. The other is Ellie Puckett, 25, a Morehead State University graduate who heads business operations. They have hired several young contract engineers and taken on interns from Kentucky universities. They are getting business development help from Terry Samuel, a Lexmark veteran.

Space Tango moved from the UK campus in January to new office and lab space at 333 East Short Street. That building, which for decades was a warehouse for Hurst Office Supply, was built in 1894 as an annex to the Protestant Infirmary, the forerunner of Good Samaritan Hospital. Developer Zeff Maloney last year refurbished the building into office and retail space.

Clements said Space Tango is now working with about 40 clients from around the world to develop research projects for launch in November, January and March.

Those include such things as growing cells, algae and plants in space. Space Tango plans to have a second, more advanced locker ready for transport to the space station as early as November, doubling its client capacity.

Clements got an opportunity to show off Space Tango’s technology at a German trade show in April to two important visitors: President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a former research scientist.

Space Tango will charge $20,000 to more than $100,000 per project for its services, which include getting NASA approvals. Clements said other revenue could come from giving clients a discount on developing projects in return for a small stake in products produced from the research.

Space Tango raised about $500,000 in startup capital last year, mostly from local sources. It is now completing a second “substantially higher” capital round, primarily with California investors.

Clements isn’t sure how Space Tango’s business model will evolve, but he is trying to think beyond the aging space station to platforms that might eventually replace it. He thinks the demand for microgravity research will keep growing as companies think of new possibilities.

Whatever the ultimate success or failure of Space Tango, Kimel thinks creating such startup companies in Kentucky is vital to the state’s economic future.

For example, he said, NASA approached Space Tango recently to discuss how flash-freeze technology could be developed for space research modules.

That made Kimel remember a Louisville company that approached KSTC because it was trying to figure out how to flash-freeze alcohol into cubes to solve a more down-to-earth problem: keeping drinks cold without diluting the bourbon.

“So we thought, I wonder if they can work with us and do this?” Kimel said. “Now they’re all excited because they want to go to space. That’s why we talk about innovation being non-linear, and why it’s so important to have so much of this stuff going on.”

It also is important for Kentucky to use young, home-grown talent, Kimel thinks.

“We have a deliberate strategy to engage as many young people as we can,” he said. “They have a mindset that we need because the stuff we’re doing is really new and complex and non-linear. It’s like the Zen (Buddhist) saying, ‘In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are only a few.’”