As dozens of U.S. companies vie for work on the nation's multibillion-dollar manned space station, the Reston area has already emerged as the winner of hundreds of new jobs.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration in April selected Reston as the project headquarters from which the space station's design and construction will be managed on a day-to-day basis. Already, office building managers are feeling the ripple effects.

Robert DeMauri, director of marketing at the Virginia Economic Development Office, hailed the project as a catalyst for economic growth in Northern Virginia, and predicted that it would generate thousands of jobs.

"We look at this as a tremendous economic opportunity," said DeMauri. "It's really just the tip of the iceberg."

The competition for space station work centers on two giants of the aerospace industry, each of which has signed up smaller companies as subcontractors. Spokesmen for TRW Inc. of Cleveland and Grumman Corp. of Bethpage, N.Y., say they expect NASA to award a 10-year, $1 billion contract for space station program support within the next five weeks. Final bids were submitted in April.

The winner will function as the "arms and legs" of engineers at NASA's office in Reston, assisting with the design, development, systems engineering and integration for the space station, according to NASA's deputy director of policy, Terence Finn.

Whichever firm gets the nod from NASA, the contract will mean additional jobs and new development for the metropolitan area. The program support contract will bring between 750 and 1,000 engineers into Reston, according to Finn. The program office will employ about 400 engineers from NASA as well as representatives from aerospace organizations in Europe, Japan and Canada.

William Lenoir, a former astronaut who now heads the space station systems practice at the Bethesda-based consulting firm of Booz Allen & Hamilton, said the numbers will be even larger. He estimates that the combined number of federal and private engineers needed might grow to 2,500. "Ideally, that's the number of people that will probably be required if NASA is going to do this thing right," he said.

Booz Allen is part of a consortium of firms bidding for the program support contract under the direction of Grumman.

Fairfax County Supervisor Martha V. Pennino said that although the space station headquarters will inevitably add to congestion in the Reston area, "the minuses will be far outweighed by the pluses."

Pennino said she is particularly enthusiastic about the center's potential contribution to the county's educational system. "The people at NASA are creative thinkers, and they get involved with the academic community wherever they are. There will be a tremendous trickle-down effect for George Mason University and our high schools."

Office building managers and developers in Reston said that hosting the space station's technical headquarters will strengthen the market for office space. The vacancy rate for office space in Reston and Herndon was 21 percent during the first quarter of this year, considerably higher than the 14 percent average for the the metropolitan area, according commercial brokerage Spaulding and Slye.

NASA's April announcement touched off a "miniboom," according to Karl Ingebritsen of Reston's Tetra Partnerships, a commercial real estate brokerage.

Ingebritsen described second-quarter activity in the area as "very lively," and estimated that the full impact of the project's arrival may not be felt until fall. He said NASA's presence will dramatically increase the area's appeal to high-tech enterprises.

"Obviously, any high-tech center in the country would have given their eye teeth for this project," he said.

The NASA team will be housed in an office complex at Hunter Mill Road and Sunrise Valley Drive. Jet Propulsion Laboratories, a NASA center operated by the California Institute of Technology, paid $25 million for a 10-year lease on the 110,000-square-foot facility, according its developer, Chris Walker of Walker & Co.

NASA's decision to put its program office in Reston stems from recommendations last June that control of space station operations be located in this area to minimize rivalry between work centers, but kept separate from NASA headquarters to preserve its neutrality.

NASA spokesman Noah Rifkin said Reston was selected over other potential sites because of its proximity to NASA headquarters and Dulles International Airport.

TRW's consortium includes Planning Research Corp. of McLean, Lockheed Missiles and Space Co. of Sunnyvale, Calif., Teledyne Brown and Eagle Engineering Inc. of Huntsville, Ala., and ANALEX Corp. of Cleveland.

Grumman's partners are Booz Allen, Ford Areospace and Communications of Detroit and Wylie Laboratories of El Segundo, Calif.

TRW has established a local subsidiary, TRW Space Station Services Co., to begin work immediately if it wins the contract. The office has a startup staff of 50.

The development of the space station is slated as NASA's next major activity. The station will cost an estimated $15 billion and is scheduled for launch in the 1990s. It is intended to provide a laboratory in space, a servicing facility for satellites and space vehicles and a base for missions beyond earth orbit.

The project has been controversial since it was unveiled by President Reagan in 1984, and its future remains uncertain. Many in Congress have criticized its cost, and a number of prominent scientists have protested that it will divert funds from more important projects.