Orbital Science: Ready to Launch

11/05/2013 7:00 am EST


The Cygnus cargo ship marked a major milestone in space exploration when it recently completed its first test docking with the International Space Station (ISS), observes Brian Hicks in Wealth Daily.

It's little more than a large metal cylinder with solar panel wings for generating power. Designed to be used once and then discarded, it's really not a whole lot more than a 17-foot-long aluminum soda.

Built by Orbital Sciences Corp. (ORB) of Dulles, Virginia, Cygnus is only the second privately built spacecraft, after the SpaceX Dragon, to ever link up with the ISS.

With this first successful docking, Cygnus marks yet another achievement of a new era—that is, a departure from the now-defunct Space Shuttle, as well as an inventory of unmanned Soviet-era machines.

It's a bittersweet moment, however, as Cygnus was never designed to return to Earth. Instead of parachuting to the ground for recovery, the way the Space Shuttle's booster rockets used to, Cygnus is designed to nudge itself out of orbit and burn up in the atmosphere.

This seeming wasteful shortcoming actually allows Cygnus to double as a space-borne wastebasket, disposing of itself, as well as any refuse from the space station, as it slams in the upper layers of the atmosphere at around 17,000 miles per hour.

Once fully operational, the Cygnus will have the capacity to deliver two tons of payload, riding on the end of a Kistler K-1 launch vehicle to low-Earth orbit for docking with the ISS.

Once docked, the vehicle can remain berthed with the ISS for as long as a month before initiating its fiery return to planet Earth.

At the moment, Orbital Sciences Corp. is one of two companies that have been able to land billion-plus-dollar contracts with NASA—the other one being Elon Musk's privately-held SpaceX, famous, both for their Falcon line of launch vehicles, as well as the Dragon reusable spacecraft, which began regular flights to the ISS this time last year.

For Orbital Sciences Corp., however, this milestone marks unparalleled success and an all-go for continued regular visits to the ISS.

Orbital's $1.4 billion total market capitalization is about 35% smaller than the contract they've already sealed with NASA for $1.9 billion under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program. This contract calls for the delivery of 20 tons of cargo to the ISS between now and 2016.

Having now joined SpaceX in the campaign for the privatization of space, Orbital's success with Cygnus is a clear indicator that the future of space exploration—and perhaps even commercial space travel—is no longer solely in the hands of big government.

What does the future hold for companies like SpaceX and Orbital Sciences? Well, all indicators point to a growing fleet of versatile, compact, modular vehicles that can be launched from a variety of platforms and bases of operation, both land- and sea-based.

Long-term plans include fulfilling both manned and unmanned functions in servicing the ISS, the construction of future space stations, and the establishment of lunar bases as refueling stations, and jumping-off platforms for deep space missions to Mars and the outer planets.

Machines like SpaceX's Grasshopper, the world's first functioning rocket vehicle with vertical landing capability, illustrate the technical prowess these relatively small private companies are able to bring to the table after decades of governmental monopoly.

What is certain when it comes to space exploration is that, whether we like it or not, public funding will most likely shrink in the years to come.

For this reason, the vision and ambition of industrialists like Orbital founder David W. Thompson, SpaceX's Elon Musk, and Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic (a company currently pioneering privatized suborbital flights), will play an important and critical role in the future of space flight.

In the meantime, watch Orbital's stock closely, as it is flirting with all-time highs. They will surely see substantial gains as their CRS contract with NASA moves into its advanced stages.

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