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Sierra Space in Louisville, Colorado wants to lead a new industrial revolution

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The growth in commercial activity in space is a sign that a major industrial revolution is underway, said Sierra Space CEO Tom Vice, and the Louisville-based company is poised to become a leader in building the foundations of a new economy “250 miles above our heads.”

Vice said in an interview that the company he has led since July 2021 is uniquely positioned to fulfill this role. The company’s spaceplane, Dream Chaser, will carry its first cargo to the International Space Station in 2023. The winged craft, whose design recalls the look of the space shuttle, is expected to fly at least seven missions for NASA. He will be able to land on the runways on his return.

Sierra Space has partnered with Blue Origin to build a space station, Orbital Reef, a commercially owned and operated venture that has been called a sort of “mixed-use business park” in space.

The company plans to train crews to fly the spacecraft that will be needed to ferry people and cargo back and forth. Sierra Space president Janet Kavandi directs the company’s space flight center and astronaut training program. Kavandi, a former astronaut, was director of NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland and director of flight crew operations at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Sierra Space plans to announce its first astronaut trainees in 2023.

The company’s vision is to provide the platform for the industrial revolution of the “orbital age,” Vice said. Sierra Space is building an end-to-end technology platform that Vice says includes transportation and space stations. These will be destinations for companies wishing to take advantage of the near-vacuum state, high radiation levels and microgravity, or low gravity, found in low Earth orbit.

The conditions can allow for easier handling of materials, speed up development cycles, and provide new insights into research into disease cures because cell cultures grow differently. Consulting firm McKinsey and Co. said in a recent article that more companies want to take advantage of the unique properties of space.

“That’s what excites me is that we’re going to develop drugs and hardware systems that you can’t produce on earth but can produce just 250 miles above our heads,” said Vice.

Sierra Space’s goal is to build a platform that allows companies to develop or build these new products, Vice said.

“They don’t necessarily want to be a space company. They just know that microgravity factories are where they need to produce their next sets of products,” Vice added. “We are witnessing a major industrial revolution. The industrial revolution is going into space for the benefit of life on earth.

Sierra’s way of thinking, Vice said, is as a real estate developer in space. “We will build a constellation of stations over time.”

Vice said NASA had the foresight to promote the commercialization of low Earth orbit. The region extends approximately 1,200 miles above Earth.

NASA politics play out today with companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Vice said. A SpaceX rocket launched NASA’s one-crew flight to the International Space Station on Wednesday.

Sierra Space and Blue Origin, founded by Jeff Bezos, have been awarded a $130 million contract to develop the Orbital Reef space station. It should be operational by 2027.

“NASA will transition from the International Space Station to a commercial space station and then be an anchor tenant,” Vice said.

This will free up funds for NASA to focus on the Moon, Mars and beyond, he added.

Vice thinks it’s an inspiring time to be in aerospace and aviation. Even with a tight labor market, Sierra Space has roughly doubled its workforce in just over a year, from about 900 employees in July 2021 to the current total of about 2,000. About 1,100 of the employees at full time are in Colorado.

The company has additional facilities in Denver, Broomfield, Madison, Wis., Brevard County, Fla. and Durham, NC

Vice said the company is bringing together a team with deep industry experience and strong skills in areas such as engineering and technology. Sierra Space announced Thursday that Ken Venner is the new chief information officer, a position he held at SpaceX.

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