Industry Profile: Orbital Sciences Corporation

Time to give a different company some space on the blog. (Pun intended, of course.)

Unlike SpaceX, Orbital (also known as Orbital Sciences Corporation) has been around for a long time, and has done some pretty innovative stuff.  Space geeks of my generation will remember how cool the Pegasus launch system was--the rocket actually launches from an airplane.

Now they've accomplished 40 or more missions.  Pegasus is taken up to around 40,000 feet on the Stargazer aircraft, then dropped. Five seconds later, the rockets fire and it continues into orbit.  By using plane power, it cuts cost of breaking the biggest pull of gravity.  This handy little rocket can carry payloads up to 1000 pounds into orbit in about 10 minutes.  Read More on Orbital's Website.

Orbital has mostly been concentrating on the small-to-medium satellites.  Thier larger missiles are a combination of Pegasus boosters and old ICBM missiles--the Minuteman II and Peacekeeper.  (See? the government CAN recycle!)
More than a memorial lawn ornament to the Cold War Era.
(Actually, they just use the engines.)
With the commercialization of manned space, they are getting into the act as well.  Their Minotaur V, a 5-stage rocket using 3 Peacekeeper missile engines and two commercial rocket engines, is cheap and uses proven technology, which is a bonus in this business where big booms are bad.  Its brochure says it's build for "to provide an extremely cost-effective capability to launch US government sponsored small spacecraft into high energy trajectories, including Geosynchronous Transfer Orbits (GTO) as well as translunar and beyond," while another rocket, the Taurus II will carry the Cygnus resupply craft to the ISS.

It looks like a big trash can, doesn't it?  Reminds me of "These Three," a Rescue Sisters story with a beaten-down ship called Le Poubelle (French for trash can.).  You can read that in ISIG I, BTW.  It's more impressive in least until it disintegrates upon reaching the atmosphere.  I'm hoping that's supposed to happen!

It's patterned after the existing multi-purpose Logistics Modules used on the space station.  (Orbital seems big on using existing technologies approved by the government.  Not a bad angle if you're looking for government contracts.)  They have a COTS contract with NASA for resupply operations between 2012 and 2015 and the Cygnus is supposed to be crew capable.  (They didn't say on their website directly, but reading between the lines, they'll use a launch abort system similar to the one they designed for the Lockheed-Martin Orion capsule.)

Orbital is a small but strong company with 3700 employees, 1800+ or which are engineers. They're located in Arizona (manufacturing), California (launch) and the DC beltway (admin.)  Their website is

So, what do you think?  How do they compare to SpaceX, in your opinion?  What else would you like to know about them?  Let's start a discussion!

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Walt said...

Orbital looks to be growing incrementally into large scale spaceflight instead of trying to get there by jumping in the deep end first thing. Like putting one's trousers on one leg at a time versus jumping into them with both legs at the same time, both work--one method's just likely to produce fewer bruises than the other.

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