Morehead space program shows Eastern Kentucky can aim high

July 26, 2014

140721KySpace-TE0025

Zach Taulbee, 21, of Prestonsburg uses a computerized CNC machine to make an aluminum part for a small “cubesat” satellite. Taulbee is an undergraduate and machine shop manager at Morehead State University’s Space Science Center.  Photo by Tom Eblen

 

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.”

140721KySpace-TE0086KSTC 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.

140724KySpace0103Kentucky 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.”

Click on each image to see larger photo and read caption:

 


Habitat needs volunteer builders for Morgan, Menifee reconstruction

January 29, 2013

Greg Dike, right, executive director of the Morehead Area Habitat for Humanity group, helps build an interior wall for a house near Morehead with a group of volunteers from Lexington on Jan. 19.  Photos by Tom Eblen

 

MOREHEAD — When Greg Dike became the director — and only employee — of Habitat for Humanity’s Rowan County unit more than two years ago, he thought he knew the mission. Then that mission got a whole lot bigger.

A cluster of tornados tore through Eastern Kentucky last March 2, killing 22 people. Eight died in neighboring Morgan and Menifee counties and dozens more were left homeless.

“When the tornadoes came, we decided to expand our service area,” said Dike, 61, whose previous careers included electrical engineer, United Methodist minister and emergency room nurse.

Dike figured that Habitat could provide valuable help in storm recovery for a couple of reasons. Habitat, an ecumenical Christian ministry, builds houses that low-income working people can afford to buy, in part through their own labors. Plus, the three-county Morehead Area unit of Habitat specializes in super energy-efficient housing.

Morehead Area Habitat’s most common house has 1,100 square feet of living space on one floor and costs about $45,000 to build. Through smart design and lots of insulation — including a foundation insulated below the frost line — each house has an average heating and cooling cost of only about $12 a month. A poorly insulated house or mobile home often has a monthly utility bill of $200 or more.

So far, in addition to its regular work in Rowan County, Habitat has built one house each in Morgan and Menifee counties for storm victims, Dike said. Six more are under construction in Morgan and two more in Menifee, with seven additional houses planned in those counties.

Judge Executives Tim Conley in Morgan County and James Trimble in Menifee County have been very supportive, and have helped Habitat identify building sites.

“They see Habitat as a way to get people into quality housing,” Dike said.

Because some people who lost their homes in the storms were elderly, disabled or otherwise unable to take on even a small mortgage, as typical Habitat clients do, the Kentucky Housing Corp. and other organizations and foundations have provided several hundred thousand dollars in grants to build homes. The state Habitat organization also has been very helpful, Dike said.

Materials for each house cost about $35,000, so the total price is kept low largely through volunteer labor. While Habitat is always happy to receive cash donations, Dike said, his biggest need is regular construction volunteers.

Dike is working with Diane James of Lexington, a longtime Habitat volunteer and former construction manager, to recruit and organize groups of regular volunteers from Central Kentucky, which is only an hour or two away by car.

The ideal volunteers are men or women who can gather several friends together and commit to one or two work days a month, ideally on the same house so they can become familiar with it.

“I think there are a lot of people out there with skills,” Dike said. “We’re not looking for award-winning carpenters; just people with some skills and common sense.”

Dike and James hopes to hear from churches, businesses or just groups of friends who think they could commit to a series of work days over the next few months. Those interested in volunteering can email James at buildwestliberty@gmail.com or call Dike at (606) 776-0022.

“It’s an easy trip, and we get a lot of work done in a day,” James said. “Most people have really enjoyed it.”

That’s certainly what I found earlier this month, when I accompanied James, Dike and a group of volunteers from several Lexington Disciples of Christ churches who were framing interior walls on a Habitat house near Morehead.

“I just love doing it,” said Bettye Burns, a retiree who volunteered through her church for a women-only Habitat build in the early 1990s and has been doing it ever since.

“It’s fun, and I’ve learned so much,” Burns said. “I credit Diane for me not getting empty-nest syndrome when my kids grew up. I was so busy helping her build houses, I didn’t have time for that.”

Steve Seithers, who began volunteering through his church in 1992, said he enjoys the fellowship and sense of accomplishment he gets from Habitat work. “Plus, it helps make a difference in people’s lives,” Seithers said. “This is something I can do, so I’m doing it.”

Click on each photo to enlarge and read caption:


New Cities chart future with public participation

August 14, 2008

MOREHEAD – Like a lot of small towns, Morehead sometimes seemed to be stuck in the past, awkwardly dealing with the present and ill-prepared for the future.

Local leaders knew there was more potential in Morehead, but how could they realize it?

In 2005, then-Mayor Bradley Collins was president of the Kentucky League of Cities. The league had started the non-profit New Cities Institute. And the institute had developed a program to help communities identify and build on their strengths by bringing together key players and — most important — involving average citizens.

“You’ve got to bring the citizens into the equation, and leaders are often so reluctant to do that,” said Sylvia Lovely, the league’s chief executive officer and the force behind the New Cities Institute. “But at the end of the day, it’s the only thing that works.”

Collins decided Morehead would be the first Kentucky city to try the program.

The old Rowan County Courthouse has been converted into an arts center. Photo by Tom Eblen

The old Rowan County Courthouse has been converted into an arts center. Photo by Tom Eblen

“To be quite honest, I was afraid of it at first,” said Collins, who has retired after four terms as mayor. “I thought the people of Morehead and Rowan County wouldn’t go for it. I was in for a wonderful surprise.”

Madisonville followed Morehead, and a program will begin Aug. 27 in Inez. West Liberty will begin one later this year, and Paintsville and other towns are considering it.

Lovely is especially excited about the program in Inez. One reason is that Inez has some dynamic, young leaders. “They are just determined they are going to turn this town around,” she said.

Another is because Inez, in Martin County, has been a national symbol of Appalachia’s troubles and hopes since 1964, when President Lyndon Johnson went there to launch his War on Poverty.

The New City program has a community’s citizens and leaders discuss issues, needs and goals around 12 principles that focus on civic pride, connections to place and people, and hopes and visions for the future.

It’s no magic formula, but Morehead leaders say it has been well worth the effort.

Rowan County is famous for its fractious history. The governor sent the militia there in the 1880s when local feuding got so out of hand that some legislators wanted to dissolve the county.

More recently, officials had worked pretty well together. But the big players – the city, the county, Morehead State University and St. Claire Regional Medical Center – didn’t communicate as much or as well as they needed to.

Of more concern was that government wasn’t especially transparent, and citizens didn’t speak up because they didn’t think officials would listen.

“I’m not proud of it,” Collins said, “but that’s the way it had always been done.”

That changed when local businesses put up money to sponsor the New City program, and large groups of citizens showed up at public meetings to have their say.

“It was a wonderful experience, even though I was afraid of it,” Collins said.

His successor, Mayor David Perkins, and Rowan County Judge Executive Jim Nickell said many New City initiatives, such as some downtown beautification projects, have yet to be accomplished because of tight budgets. “Hopefully, when the economy picks up they can start implementing some of the ideas,” Nickell said.

But the tone of civic conversation is much better, as is the working relationship between the key institutions and leaders.

“It was really a ­thoughtful, frank series of discussions,” said Morehead State President Wayne Andrews. “I came away thinking we learned a lot.”

“We’re still going to disagree sometimes, but we’re not at each other’s throats,” Perkins said. “People realize that now they have more of a chance for impact. And we have a much broader sense of what people in the community want.”

Morehead has made big strides recently, including: A new civic center opened in 2006. Major downtown projects include a new courthouse and library, and an arts center in the old courthouse. A joint city-county recycling program is making the local environment better — and making a profit. And there’s more city-county cooperation on water, sewer and emergency services as well as on home construction regulations.

City officials had meetings to listen to Morehead State students, who said they wanted more to do on weekends. As a result, the city helped attract a new sports bar and six-screen movie theater by subsidizing land acquisition.

People said they wanted the university to have more presence downtown. The university’s Center for Traditional Music is now on Main Street, and Andrews said officials are looking for similar opportunities.

“We really believe that if we work together and the community succeeds we all succeed,” Andrews said. “It has been a great story for our community.”