Success of Morehead State's aerospace program out of this world

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MOREHEAD, Ky.— Zachary Taulbee just graduated from college last month with a space science degree. But his resume is already impressive — five projects he has worked on have already been launched into orbit.

Taulbee, 22, served as the machine shop manager at Morehead State's Space Science Center. The Prestonsburg native said that he never considered a career in aerospace before he arrived at Morehead.

“I knew I wanted to come to Morehead because I really liked the campus and I have family close,” he said. “But whenever I first got here I didn’t even know about the Space Science Center until I was actually in another class that came to tour the building.”

After touring the building, which includes a control center for a 21-meter space antenna system, chambers that mimic the electromagnetic environment of space, and a digital Star Theater, Taulbee knew that space science was his future.

“The day after I saw the building I changed my major,” Taulbee said with a laugh.

This summer, Taulbee is interning at Rajant Corp., a high-tech firm that is a pioneer in the development of multi-frequency wireless communications, hopes to land a job in the quickly growing aerospace industry.

According to Dr. Ben Malphrus, professor of space sciences and the director of Morehead's Space Science Center, that shouldn’t be too difficult for him.

Malphrus said the placement rate of the space science program is 100 percent.

“I can’t fill the jobs that are out there,” Malphrus said. “I have companies calling me up beginning of March asking: ‘Who’s going to graduate this year?’”

The program, which is one of only five space science programs in the nation, has come a long way since its’ inception in the early 1990s.

Jeff Kruth, space science staff electrical engineer, laughs as he recalls Malphrus’ first office on campus.

“It was a broom closet,” he jokes.

He pulls up a photo on his computer screen. Actually, it was a run-down garage apartment.

Maphrus sits in his office in the $15.6 million Space Science Center. On the shelf behind him is a tiny satellite that — in the last month -- has been in the hands of former President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama.

Malphrus said one of the most exciting projects at the school is a NASA contract to develop and build a satellite that will orbit the moon to look for the distribution of water ice.

The Lunar Ice Cube is the size of a piece of carryon luggage, and is one of only 13 payloads that will be carried on the maiden voyage of the largest, most powerful rocket ever built on its maiden voyage in 2018.

Malphrus said the satellite will orbit the moon, searching for water that might one day be used to provide fuel and water for manned lunar outposts.

NASA has also asked Morehead state to become the first non-NASA node to be part of the Deep Space Network.

The Deep Space Network is NASA’s international collection of giant radio antennas that supports interplanetary spacecraft missions, plus a few that orbit Earth. The radio antennas are located in California, Australia and Spain. And after a series of upgrades, to the Space Science Center's 21-meter radio telescope and ground stations, the next one will be in Morehead, Kentucky.

“It’s a pretty big deal,” said Malphrus. “DSN (Deep Space Network) is the cat’s pajamas, and for us to be part of it is a really big deal.”

Just this week, two Morehead State students received widespread media attention for using the university's radio antenna to locate a miniature satellite that was thought to have been lost in space.

Malphrus has built the program from the ground up, and now it is internationally known.

But many in Kentucky have never heard of it.

“That’s the weird thing about us,” Malphrus said. “Our program has an international reputation. I go all over the planet to give talks. We’re very well known internationally, but we’re not very well known in the state of Kentucky, which is strange.”

Malphrus speculates that the lack of local recognition is a result of a fragmented aerospace industry in the state. Unlike other states, Kentucky has no single big aerospace company to point to.

“In a way, I think it’s healthier because we have a more diversified portfolio,” Malphrus said. “We have a large number of small companies that are doing great work and collectively have become the number one economic driver in the state.”

Taulbee said he could have never guessed 5 years ago that he could be pursuing an aerospace career in his home state.

“But from everything I have seen, it’s becoming a reality,” he said.

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