After first ISS mission, Orbital Sciences plans for growth
“Orb-1” resupply mission to the International Space Station ended a solid performance with a scheduled destructive reentry into the Earth's atmosphere on Feb. 19, concluding the first roundtrip for the automated Cygnus freighter under a $1.9 billion, eight-flight contract—one the Dulles, Va.-based company intends to repeat while leveraging the accomplishment into new business opportunities.
Those include competition for additional cargo missions beyond the firstCommercial Resupply Services (CRS) agreement, which expires in 2016, as well as new markets for the Antares medium-lift rocket that Orbital developed for International Space Station (ISS) deliveries as part of its participation in NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program.
“The picture-perfect execution of the first operational mission is a great way to start the CRS contract,” said David W. Thompson, Orbital chairman and CEO, after Cygnus dropped from orbit over the South Pacific at 1:20 p.m., EST.
Good for NASA, which can now turn to Orbital as well as inaugural COTS partnerto ramp up commercial deliveries of science equipment, spare parts, food, clothing and other gear to the ISS. And good for Orbital, a 32-year-old satellite developer and launch provider.
On the eve of the Jan. 9 “Orb-1” liftoff from the new Mid Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Virginia's Eastern Shore, the White House proposed an extension of ISS operations to 2024 from 2020, in part to foster greater private-sector interest in the six-person space station. On Feb. 13, Orbital announced record quarterly earnings of $375.4 million for the final three months of 2013, a performance bolstered in part by the successful introduction of the medium-lift Antares rocket last April and the September/October 2013 fulfillment of Cygnus development obligations under COTS, according to Thompson.
“We are kicking off 2018 with full validation of the research and development effort that we've gone through (with Antares and Cygnus) over the past five years,” Orbital corporate spokesman Barron Beneski elaborated. “From the corporate finance standpoint, we are pleased to come out of this very large R&D spending program with a healthy balance sheet. We are now entering a multi-year period when we expect very strong free cash flow.”
Under COTS and the fixed-price CRS agreement, NASA funds flow to its launch providers as performance milestones are met. For Orbital that signals growth over a fourth-quarter fortified 2013.
“We are expecting to grow in the range of six to nine percent top line, while others in our industry are forecasting revenue declines,” said Beneski.
Orbital, meanwhile, is positioning the two-stage Antares as a replacement for the soon to retire United Launch Alliance Delta 2 for U.S. science and national security missions as well as commercial and international customers.
“We are in the process of telling the Antares story and marketing its capabilities to potential customers other than the ISS,” said Beneski.
Cygnus departed the station's U.S. segment Harmony module on Feb. 18 at 6:41 a.m., EST—while in the grip of the Canadian robot arm—as smoothly as it arrived on Jan. 12.
The capsule hauled away 3,250 lb. of trash that burned up during reentry.
Both the release and the Jan. 12 rendezvous/grapple of Cygnus with its 2,780 lb. of supplies were carried out by U.S. and Japanese station astronauts Mike Hopkins and Koichi Wakata, who worked from a robot arm control post in the U.S. segment Cupola observation deck.
“Thanks for the catch,” radioed Orbital's Dulles control center after Hopkins executed the grapple as Cygnus maneuvered itself within 10 meters (32.8 ft.) of the station.
The U.S. station crew, which awaited the belated arrival of Christmas gifts on Cygnus, seemed equally impressed.
“The vehicle was incredibly stable,” U.S. space station astronaut Rick Mastracchio observed. “It's pretty amazing these guys have delivered two vehicles in such a short time. We look forward to that kind of continued success.”
Orbital's COTS requirements were fulfilled with a Sept. 18 to Oct. 23 Cygnus demonstration flight to the station. Plans to kick off the CRS phase in early December were delayed by a space station thermal control system problem that required a pair of unplanned NASA spacewalks.
SpaceX is preparing for a March 16 liftoff of the next commercial ISS resupply mission. Orbital is on the schedule for cargo missions in early May and October.