Orbital Sciences Takes Off in Space — and on Capitol Hill

Space launch vehicles at the Orbital Sciences Corp. booth during a National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs.

Photograph by Matthew Staver/Bloomberg

Space launch vehicles at the Orbital Sciences Corp. booth during a National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs.

Orbital Sciences Corp., which announced yesterday that it would merge with Alliant Techsystems Inc., has been flying high due to the success of its Antares rocket, which carries the Cygnus supply capsule to the International Space Station.

Unlike its competitors in the space race, such as Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp., Orbital launches from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

The company received financial incentives to launch from there. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority built a 60-foot-high hangar-like structure, painted white except for the NASA logo and American flag on its side, for Orbital to assemble Antares and attach the Cygnus capsule.

The authority, a state agency, leased land from NASA and built a launch pad for Antares.

There are also some other benefits for Orbital. It can launch Antares when it wants to, without having to wait for an open date as do its competitors that use Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida or Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

“Sometimes the scheduling becomes difficult,” Orbital’s chief executive officer, David Thompson, said in an interview. “There’s traffic congestion for rockets. Wallops gave us an opportunity to avoid the conflict of launch dates.”

As Jeff Foust, a senior analyst at Futron Corp., a Bethesda, Maryland-based consulting firm, put it:  “Orbital’s basically the big man on campus.”

With another space station supply launch scheduled for June, Antares’ record of success makes it more attractive to potential customers, said former NASA Associate Administrator Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University in Washington.

“No one wants to be the first, second or even third payload to go up in a new vehicle,” Pace said.

There are some benefits to Virginia as well. State officials are using Orbital’s presence to try to attract space-related companies such as those that grew up around the Kennedy Space Center. NASA reported that its spending pumped $2.15 billion into Florida’s economy and created 16,050 jobs during the 12 months ending Sept. 30, 2012.

Big launches also attract tourists. Local businesses sport photos of Antares. A restaurant touts its view of the pad.

NASA and Virginia officials have met with other companies to entice them to come. “Pretty much everybody in the rocketry business has visited us,” said Bruce Underwood, a  NASA deputy director.

If someone else wants to come, there’s room for another launch pad, said Zigmond Leszczynski, deputy director of the space authority.

Thanks in part to the $1.9 billion  space station supply contract, Orbital’s share of revenues from government work increased to 83 percent in 2013 from 71 percent in 2011. Its lobbying expenditures have grown as well; in 2013, Orbital spent $390,000 to lobby, the most ever. It spent $355,000 in 2012.

 

 

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