COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Orbital Sciences Corp. snagged a NASA contract worth up to $57 million to support suborbital flight tests of the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle’s launch abort system that the Dulles, Va.-based company is developing under subcontract to Lockheed Martin.

Perched atop Orion, the funnel-shaped launch abort system is designed to whisk NASA’s six-person capsule away from its Ares 1 launcher should something go wrong on the way to orbit.

NASA intends to test Orion’s launch abort system starting as early as 2009 by flying the hardware atop surplus ICBM stages launched from White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

Orbital Sciences beat out at least one other offer in the U.S. Air Force-run competition. Orlando, Fla.-based L-3 Coleman Research bid on the contract with teammates Space Vector Corp. and Alliant Techsystems, the Minneapolis, Minn.-based firm under contract to build the main stage of the Ares 1 rocket NASA is designing as Orion’s launcher.

NASA spokesman J.D. Harrington said the indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity contract the Air Force awarded to Orbital Sciences is worth between $35 million and $57 million depending on whether NASA orders two, three or four flights.

A NASA official said Scott Horowitz, the agency’s associate administrator for exploration systems, petitioned NASA Administrator Mike Griffin to use the surplus boosters on the grounds that they were the least risky and most cost effective solution available for the test flights. Griffin concurred March 16, the NASA official said. The test program is being run by NASA’s California-based Dryden Flight Research Center and is modeled on the Little Joe 2 test launches NASA conducted out of White Sands during the Apollo program.

NASA officials said they relied on the Air Force to run the competition because it already had deals in place with four firms, including Orbital Sciences and Coleman, for conducting suborbital flights using surplus Minuteman stages. The other two companies qualified to bid under the Air Force-administered contract were Space Vector Corp. and Lockheed Martin.

The Air Force released a formal request for offer to the qualified vendors late last year. Industry sources said bidders were notified who won April 4.

While Orbital Sciences faced competition for the abort test booster contract, the company is the lone qualified vendor under a similar Air Force-administered contract that permits the company to use surplus Minuteman boosters for orbital launches.

Orbital Sciences conducted just such a launch in December from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s eastern shore, lofting the Air Force’s TacSat-2 and NASA’s Genesat-1 into orbit. Orbital Science’s next Minotaur launch is slated for April 21, also from Wallops. The payload for that mission is the Missile Defense Agency’s Near Field Infrared Experiment, which is intended to lead the way to improved navigation, guidance and control systems for missile interceptors.