Sierra Nevada Corp. Building Space Industry Around “Dream Chaser”

4/3/13Follow @Rachelsapin

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traditional space stalwarts like Florida, where the industry felt a larger jolt from NASA shutting down U.S. space launch centers in 2011.

Sierra Nevada Corp. is a relatively recent addition to Colorado’s space community. It acquired both MicroSat Systems (a Littleton, CO-based leader in the small satellite market) and Louisville-based SpaceDev in 2008, and afterwards formed a space systems business area in Colorado. The company has since been recognized as one of the fastest-growing private space entities in the nation.

Around a thousand of SNC’s 2,500 employees are located in Colorado, with 150 currently working on the Dream Chaser. “It’s a good state to do business in,” Sirangelo says. “It’s easy to attract people here, and the leadership is approachable. Very few people hate Colorado.” These were among the reasons Sirangelo, then CEO of SpaceDev, decided to move the company’s space headquarters from Poway, CA, to Louisville six years ago.

Defense contracts may still account for most of SNC’s revenue, but direct government clients make up only a third of the company’s customer base. According to Sirangelo, the rest of its customers are private companies like Lockheed Martin that sell directly to the government or commercial companies working in adjacent markets.

In January, Sierra Nevada Corp. chose Lockheed as its exclusive partner on the NASA Certification Products Contract process for the Dream Chaser. “It’s pretty intuitive when you think about it,” Sirangelo says. “Here’s a company that’s 25 miles away from us that spent years fixing similar problems.” He believes SNC will benefit from Lockheed’s experience as a heritage space provider and from what it has learned about human spaceflight from building the deep-space Orion capsule for NASA.

Since the deal, Sirangelo has been lauded in Colorado for SNC’s collaborative approach. “Having Sierra Nevada in our backyard is great,” says Vicky Lea, aviation and aerospace industry manager at the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation. “They exemplify new space and old space—they straddle both. ”

Mark Muro, senior fellow and policy director at the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program, agrees. “It’s a fascinating example of a new space company that connects folks with more traditional space, yet is getting involved in new lines of business that will help create new opportunities in the industry,” he says.

Sirangelo’s passion for Colorado to become a leading cluster for private and human spaceflight is something Joe Tanner, a senior instructor in CU-Boulder’s aerospace department, appreciates.

“What they’re trying to do is not easy,” says Tanner, a former NASA astronaut who currently works with Sierra Nevada Corp. and graduate students on the Dream Chaser. “You have to love space exploration itself over profit. Sierra Nevada, bless their hearts, has a vision to advance U.S. human spaceflight, and they’re laying their company on the line.”

Rachel Sapin is a freelance journalist based in Denver. She produces stories on the economy, the environment, and culture. Follow @Rachelsapin

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