In 1992, Kjell Stakkestad, president and CEO of KinetX Aerospace, helped develop a prototype satellite ground system using off-the-shelf hardware and software products to demonstrate that a satellite ground system could be rapidly, cheaply and reliably developed. (Photo by Mike Mertes, Az Business magazine)
CEO Series: Launching Arizona’s aerospace industry
KinetX Aerospace faced a Herculean challenge when it was asked to develop a navigation system to guide the fastest spacecraft ever launched to the farthest destination ever explored.
“We have done navigation to a number of planets, but it was a different kind of challenge going to Pluto,” says Kjell Stakkestad, president and CEO of KinetX Aerospace. “We had to travel 3.5 billion miles and had to hit a very precise box. It was like having to hit a dime from 5 miles away.”
But KinetX delivered. After a journey of 9½ years and more than 3 billion miles, the team from KinetX helped the New Horizons spacecraft hit its mark and captivate the world with the first close-up images of Pluto.
Operating out of Tempe, KinetX Aerospace is a privately held company that specializes in the design, development and operation of large-scale space systems, in addition to working on deep space missions. It is the only private company involved in deep space exploration.
Az Business had an out-of-this-world discussion with Stakkestad about the state of space in Arizona.
Az Business: What’s the story of KinetX?
Kjell Stakkestad: What we do is we make systems work. We helped the IRIDIUM satellite system get working and we are the longest-running subcontractor for IRIDIUM. We have also worked on defense projects and worked on communications systems for the military.
Now, we are trying to use what we’ve learned to develop intellectual property that allows soldiers to use cell phones instead of big backpacks for communications. We are using our systems to tie genetics to cancer treatment and drug trials. The medical community has all these great methods to measure everything you could imagine in a patient. But how does it all fit together? That’s what we do: systems engineering.
AB: What are you working on now?
KS: The most flashy stuff we do is space and we are very proud of that. We just launched a mission to get asteroid samples from Bennu. This project is difficult because Bennu is only 500 meters across, so navigation is tricky. There is a lot of physics and a lot of math. There’s no plugging it into a formula and doing it. But the information we’re going to get from Bennu will help scientists examine the origin of our planet, so it’s exciting.
AB: How is Arizona as a place to operate an aerospace company?
KS: The state is fantastic and has a lot of spectacular space work going on. ASU, Northern Arizona University and the University of Arizona have some of the best programs in the world. But the state has some problems, too. Arizona helped put the largest set of satellites into orbit and got almost no press. Arizona is in the top three or four states for aerospace and we tout it far less than other states. I think there are a lot of opportunities for Arizona to get itself more on the map and we miss those opportunities.
AB: What should we be doing so we don’t miss those opportunities?
KS: If we had a vibrant advocacy group fighting for (and focused on) the aerospace industry, you would see commercial space and space work in Arizona grow dramatically. Arizona is a place where people want to come. The only drawback is that we have to do something about the education system. When we try to attract people here, they say, “You’re 49th in education.” It doesn’t preclude people from coming, but these are educated people and they want their children to be well educated. So we need to do something about that.