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From a nook in Colorado out to Uranus

By Kim MillettSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / February 16, 1982



Colorado Springs, Colo.

David Manion, like William Hewlett and David Packard, started his business in a garage.

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Three years ago he opened a cottage industry in Colorado Springs. Today his company, M-Cube Engineering, builds everything from computerized optical receivers to novelty items such as miniature solar-powered helicopters.

One of his planetary radio astronomy receivers is traveling to Uranus aboard Voyager. A data system he designed sends pictures back from the Viking Mars landers. This month he won a contract for machine parts for the space shuttle.

Mr. Manion gambled on an initial investment of $50,000 which has paid off in contracts with a galaxy of big-name companies such as Hewlett-Packard and TRW.

''We're incredibly busy,'' he says from his new office in a cinder-block machine shop.

Mr. Manion's parlaying of an idea and a handful of money into a sort of computerized odd-job shop symbolizes the growing entrepreneurial spirit here and elsewhere in Colorado. It also reflects the rise of Colorado Springs as a small but growing high-technology and aerospace center.

Once primarily a resort town, this city in the shadow of Pikes Peak is today a bustling hub of 320,000 people. Its economy stands relatively firm on three pillars: tourism, the military, and high technology. In the past decade, a cavalcade of electronics firms have been attracted to the area partly by a strong antiunion tradition and the city's proximity to the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), a leading contractor for software and communications systems.

Moreover, the Air Force is planning to build a $375 million consolidated space operations center on a 640-acre tract east of the city. It is expected to employ 1,800 workers by 1986. The city's Economic Development Department puts current capital investment in the area at $250 million.

Still, Colorado Springs remains a mere silicon chip compared with high-tech centers such as California's Silicon Valley. ''It's a lot of smoke and not much fire,'' says John Riggen, division manager of Hewlett-Packard's Colorado Springs unit.

Local boosters, however, are going after more companies. One goal: to make the community a national headquarters for administrative and clerical offices as well as electronics. Yet in turning their dreams into reality, city leaders will have to contend with growing problems of traffic congestion, limited transportation service, and shortages of skilled workers. What's more, some local residents are being left out of the boom.

''There are not as many jobs as people think,'' said Cesar Puerta, a local government economist. ''Employment will rise, but in most cases local people will be working in support services, not technology.''

Even some of those electronics companies heavily tied to the military find the roller-coaster ride of the defense contract business a bit unsettling. ''The city will have to get used to the ebb and flow of major contracts,'' said Mike McKay, director of Ford Aerospace's local operation. ''These come and go, and they affect people's lives.''

Nevertheless, the industry is anchored by a core of companies like Mostek Corporation, Ampex, and Hewlett-Packard, which produce software and precision instruments for civilian use. The future also seems secure for small-scale entrepreneurs like Mr. Manion, who are flexible enough to adapt.

Indeed, the risk-taking engineer, sitting amid a pile of blueprints in his crowded office, says he's ready to strike out further. M-Cube Engineering is embarking on new designs for mechanical and electronic medical instruments and a contract with Amtrak to produce parts for passenger cars.

''The company isn't much compared to the giants,'' he said, ''but it's a long way from that one-room apartment I lived in when I got married and the $100 I had in the bank.''