Top Five Companies To Watch: Orbital Sciences Corp.

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Headquarters: Dulles, Va.

Employees: 3,325; 3,650 after GD acquisition closes

Revenue: $1.125 billion

 

Orbital Sciences Corp. shed its status as an industry upstart long ago by firmly establishing itself as a leader in building relatively small satellites and rockets. Now, after several years of double-digit growth — following a series of divestitures that enabled the company to focus on this core market — Orbital is on the move again, with strategic initiatives under way that could begin bearing fruit in new arenas in the next year or two.

David W. Thompson, Orbital’s founder and chief executive, said the moves are aimed at enabling the company to move into the realm of what he calls “medium space.” This strategy is being pursued on three fronts: NASA’s human spaceflight program; the commercial telecommunications satellite market; and national security and civil space. Orbital has important milestones or events coming up in each area.

Orbital gained a toehold in human spaceflight in 2006 as the Launch Abort System provider on Lockheed Martin’s winning bid to build NASA’s Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle. Two years later, Orbital signed a Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) agreement with NASA under which the company is developing the Cygnus space station cargo module and its Taurus 2 medium-class launcher.

Although Orion faces cancellation as a result of U.S. President Barack Obama’s plan to rely on commercially developed vehicles for space station crew transport, work on the program continues, with a flight test of the Launch Abort System scheduled to take place in May at the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range, N.M. Moreover, Thompson believes that even if Orion is canceled, Orbital’s experience with the Launch Abort System program will position it to capture similar work for the commercial vehicle that ultimately gets built to carry crews to the space station in Orion’s stead.

Meanwhile, development work on Cygnus and Taurus 2 continues, with the first flight test of the rocket and capsule scheduled to take place about a year from now at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s eastern shore. Orbital recently announced that the Taurus 2’s main engine, the Russian-built NK-33, completed three tests over a two-week period, logging more than 600 seconds of cumulative burn time. Orbital is preparing for one Taurus 2-Cygnus test flight under COTS, to be followed by cargo deliveries to the international space station starting in 2011 under a separate NASA contract worth $1.9 billion that was awarded in 2008.

On the commercial front, meanwhile, Orbital has designed a higher-power version of its Star geostationary-orbiting satellite platform that will provide 7 to 7.5 kilowatts of power, an increase of 2 to 2.5 kilowatts over current versions. The company has taken the so-called Star 2.7 through preliminary design review and is awaiting its first order. Thompson says he expects to book three commercial telecommunications orders this year, although whether one of them is for a Star 2.7 platform remains to be seen.

Most recently, Orbital announced its intent to acquire the satellite manufacturing business of General Dynamics, a deal expected to close in the next few weeks that will allow the company to begin offering a proven platform for low Earth orbiting satellites in the 2- to 4-metric-ton class. Thompson says this could open up $1.25 to $1.5 billion worth of new business to Orbital in the next two years, primarily in the U.S. national security and civil Earth observation arenas.