ATK Reassures Investors on Heavy Lifter Prospects

by

PARIS — Solid-rocket-motor manufacturer ATK on Feb. 3 sought to convince investors that its position in NASA’s future heavy-lift rocket program is getting stronger despite ongoing debate over the vehicle’s cost and schedule.

Minneapolis-based ATK, whose $500 million in annual NASA revenue during the shuttle era is now being reduced to around $300 million a year, said the lower figure seems stable for the foreseeable future given the state of the debate in Washington over what NASA’s heavy-lift rocket will look like.

“If the program is executed the way it has been planned, and the way Congress has laid out the authorization for execution of NASA’s plan, it should be a fairly smooth transition” from ATK’s current work on the Ares rocket, which has been canceled by NASA, to work on the future heavy-lift rocket, ATK Chief Executive Mark W. DeYoung said in a Feb. 3 conference call with investors. “The view we have — that ATK will play a critical role … in these future vehicles — continues to solidify as time goes on. ATK’s position for next-generation NASA vehicles continues to improve.”

NASA’s decision in February 2010 to cancel the Constellation program to develop the Ares rocket and the Orion crew transport vehicle wiped out about $650 million from ATK’s backlog. Without the Ares first stage to soften the blow of the shuttle’s retirement, the company was facing a precipitous drop in revenue with no replacement in sight. ATK builds the shuttle’s solid-rocket motors, from which the Ares 1 first stage was derived.

Faced with congressional protest, NASA in January returned with a rocket design that uses a five-segment solid-rocket motor design that would provide the equivalent of Ares work for ATK. But whether NASA’s new design meets budget and schedule requirements set by Congress remains unclear.

ATK Chief Financial Officer John L. Shroyer said during the call that, from what ATK knows today of NASA’s plans and the congressional will, ATK sees its NASA work stabilizing at between $300 million and $350 million a year. The company expects to generate slightly more than $100 million in shuttle contract revenue for its current fiscal year, which ends March 31, with almost all of that already booked as the shuttle nears a retirement now planned for calendar-year 2011.

DeYoung said that in the company’s last fiscal year it reported roughly $300 million in shuttle-related work.

Beyond the revenue loss, the end of the shuttle program will remove from ATK “one of our high-margin programs,” Shroyer said. He said the company nonetheless expects to return to double-digit operating margins in its aerospace division, which includes ATK’s work on the Airbus 350 commercial aircraft.

DeYoung said that in addition to working with Congress to assure an ATK role in the heavy-lift rocket, the company is positioning itself with NASA for future commercial space launch business, including commercial crew transport.

“We submitted proposals in response to [NASA’s] Commercial Crew Development competition and plan to announce more details on an affordable and capable solution … in the near future,” DeYoung said.

For the three months ending Jan. 2, ATK said its Aerospace Systems division, which includes its NASA work, reported revenue of $321 million, down 17 percent from a year earlier. The company said the principal cause of the decline was lower revenue from the Ares 1 rocket, and lower revenue from the reusable solid-rocket motor for the space shuttle.