Could aerospace be Kentucky's next big industry?

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In Kentucky, we are 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 nation, I get surprised looks when I describe the incredible things being done in Kentucky aerospace. In 2016, Kentucky had $10.85 billion in aerospace exports, making it Kentucky’s No. 1 export, and No. 2 in the entire U.S., behind only Washington.

However, it wasn’t until 2015, that Kentucky finally recognized aerospace when export data was released to show the state had $8.7 billion in aerospace exports. At that time, the state legislature passed House Joint Resolution 100 through the incredible support of Rep. Rocky Adkins.

It 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 2017, we have learned many compelling things about this thriving industry. Primarily, we have already discovered that these industries consist of more than 600 companies in Kentucky and employ 17,500 people.

Why Kentucky? Why not?

We have two major shipping airport hubs 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.

Are you getting the picture yet?


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 world that have their own lab on the International Space Station conducting experiments. In fact, on the Space X launch in Feb. 19 a new batch of experiments was 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 portion 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 look at biomedical research.

It doesn’t stop there.

Kentucky’s universities are also leading the way in many different fields in aviation and aerospace. The University of Kentucky, University of Louisville, Eastern Kentucky University and Morehead State University all have well-known programs involved in aviation and aerospace. Moreheads’ 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,” said Malphrus. “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 ice.

“These missions represent incredible opportunities for young people to prepare for careers in aerospace- which they can now pursue in Kentucky,” Malphrus said.

We also have a very supportive state government, in all branches and on both sides of the political aisle. On Oct. 5, 2016, Lt. Governor Jenean Hampton helped organize and start the Kentucky Aerospace Industry Consortium with the goal to promote and grow the aerospace industry in Kentucky.

“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 Hampton.

So, what’s next? Where does Kentucky go from here?

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

Stewart Ditto II is the executive director of the Kentucky Aerospace Industry Consortium.

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