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Colorado's push to lead the space race

Walk into Sierra Nevada Corp.'s Space Systems facility in Louisville, Colorado, and you'll see firsthand why the Rocky Mountain state has become a leader in the race for space jobs.

The company is in the midst of hiring 300 people for its space systems division, which is building the Dream Chaser spaceship. Designed to carry cargo, small satellites and even people into orbit, the ship could then turn around and land on Earth like an airplane. That would allow it to land on a runway, as opposed to out in the ocean or the desert where most spacecraft touch down.

"With the Dream Chaser we can depart the (International) Space Station and be on the ground in less than six to 10 hours," said Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president of the space systems division. "That means we can leave at breakfast and be home for dinner."

Sierra Nevada Corp. already has a contract for at least six NASA missions, with the first expected to happen by 2020. It aims be "the transporter of anything to space" and the vehicle to fix and maintain what's been put into space.

But it isn't the only Colorado-based company looking to capitalize on growing demand for small satellites. As the cost of launching these technologies falls, a wider array of companies and organizations are looking to tap into their power for communication, logistics support and other capabilities.

Littleton-based Oakman Aerospace is another Colorado company hiring workers to help keep up with satellite demand.

"A number of people in this industry have long realized that small satellites are the wave of the future," said Oakman CEO Maureen O'Brien

"It's more economical and there is a greater availability for smaller satellites to make it into space than even five years ago."

Local leaders are confident that Colorado, which is landlocked and far from the industry's traditional launch sites, can keep up with the growth in space jobs happening in California, Texas and Florida. Colorado is home to more than 400 aerospace companies and suppliers, and employs more than 162,000 people, according to the Colorado Space Coalition.

"We are very fortunate to have a very high concentration of the large, prime aerospace and defense contractors," said Vicky Lea, director of aerospace and aviation at the Metro Denver Economic Development Corp.

Lea noted that 56 percent of Colorado's aerospace companies employ no more than 10 people, which "speaks very well to the whole entrepreneurial and innovative spirit that Colorado fosters in its workforce," she said.