2016: The Year Orbital ATK Returned to Space

By Rich Smith Markets Fool.com

Once one of America's leading providers of satellite launch services, two years and two months ago Orbital ATK (NYSE: OA) suffered a setback. An Antares rocket carrying supplies to the International Space Station lit up the skies when it exploded over Wallops Island, Virginia, just six seconds after liftoff.

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Fireball over Wallops. Image source:Joel Kowsky for NASA.

Orbital immediately got to work fixing the problem, removing a suspect engine model from service and embarking upon an ambitious upgrade program. Two years ago, Orbital promised investors it would have a new rocket engine picked out and slotted into its Antares rocket, and be ready to resume launches "early ... in 2016." Ultimately, it took a bit longer than planned, but when all was said and done, Orbital ATK did indeed succeed in returning to space in 2016.

Baby steps

While getting its new rocket ready for prime time, Orbital relied on the kindness of strangers. To fulfill its contractual obligations to NASA, the company sent up two loads of supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) in December 2015 and March 2016 -- not atop its own Antares rockets, but instead riding Atlas rocketspurchased from the Boeing (NYSE: BA) and Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT) joint venture United Launch Alliance.

A few months later, Orbital had finally finished integrating new Russian RD-181 rocket engines into its upgraded Antares launch vehicle. The twin-engine rocket now puts out 28% more thrust than Orbital's original Antares, and permits Orbital to lift 20% more payload than it used to. On Oct. 17, 2016, a new mission dubbed "OA-5" successfully launched atop the upgraded Antares.

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What comes next

So that's it for the Atlas launches, right? Now Orbital ATK can resume regular launches to orbit under its own power?

Well, not quite. Orbital's next Commercial Resupply Missionto ISS -- OA-7, going up in March 2017 -- will once again ride an Atlas V rocket. To be clear, though, NASA and Orbital agree that the switch to Atlas "had nothing to do with any concerns that Orbital ATK or NASA had about the Antares rocket." Rather, NASA simply asked Orbital to carry "more cargo" to ISS than the new Antares could lift, and requested that for this purpose, Orbital again avail itself of ULA's services.

Once that mission is out of the way, though, Orbital says it will execute its remaining missions under the NASA Commercial Resupply Services-1 contract (missions OA-8 through OA-11) using the new Antares. OA-8 will probably go up this coming summer, then OA-9 in late fall 2017, with the final two missions running in 2018. Then, beginning in 2019, Orbital ATK will carry out at least six more ISS resupply missions under NASA's CRS-2 contract.

Where Orbital ATK stands today

All things considered, Orbital ATK has held up pretty well despite trying conditions these past two years. Sure, since consummating its merger on Feb. 9, 2015 (prior to that date, Orbital and ATK were two separate companies), quarterly revenue has declined by about 9% on average, and quarterly profits by perhaps 35%. But given that we're talking about a rocket company trying to operate without having its own rocket to launch, that's not a bad performance. I can think of at least one Orbital ATK rival that, in similarly dire straits, hasn't performed half so well.

Today, with its operations finally returning to an even keel, Orbital ATK is a stock boasting $4.6 billion in annual revenue and trailing net profits of $337 million. These aren't the best numbers in the world to be sure, but they give the stock a modest valuation of only 15 times earnings, and 1.1 times sales. And now that Orbital ATK is back in the space business at last, there should be plenty of opportunities for it to grow these numbers going forward.

We wish it all the best.

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Rich Smithdoes not own shares of, nor is he short, any company named above. You can find him onMotley Fool CAPS, publicly pontificating under the handleTMFDitty, where he's currently ranked No. 345 out of more than 75,000 rated members.

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