How You Can Profit From the Final Frontier


It's been a long half-century for the space program, falling from the heights of Apollo 11 to having astronauts today piggybacking on aging Russian rockets just to reach orbit. Today the private sector has picked up the slack, capitalizing on the growing business of space. Aerospace small cap Orbital Sciences (NYS: ORB) could deliver a windfall to shareholders as it attempts to boldly go where no stock has gone before.

An industry ready to launch
With advancing launch technologies making achieving orbit cost-effective and even routine, corporations have quickly accelerated moves into the space industry. Although the venture requires enormous capital, companies such as Orbital and Elon Musk's SpaceX have found plenty of ways to keep the revenue flowing and achieve their visions.

With NASA currently paying $63 million per astronaut to escape Earth's atmosphere, the agency desperately needs a new and cheaper method of transport. It recently handed out $900 million in contracts to Boeing (NYS: BA) and SpaceX to develop next-generation craft for astronauts. That number only scratches the surface of NASA's plans: The agency has also awarded $3.5 billion to Orbital and SpaceX for orbital cargo delivery, fulfilling a vital necessity for supplying astronauts in orbit.

While you shouldn't expect Captain Kirk and the starship Enterprise anytime soon, Orbital has plenty of room to fortify its niche and expand. The $100 billion space industry should only grow with the coming of space startups like asteroid mining venture Planetary Resources, as well as government projects such as NASA's planned manned missions to asteroids and Mars.

While we eagerly await the Martians, Orbital has a lot more than just NASA money fueling its revenues.

Star wars
Orbital competes in a number of areas besides cargo-ferrying rocket design. The company builds ballistic missile interceptors and rocket targets for the military, communications and science satellites for a number of public and private entities, and technical systems and services for operations in orbit.

Seventy-one percent of total revenues for 2011 came from the U.S. government, a significant number that fortunately has consistently declined from a 78% total in 2009. Boeing also makes up more than 10% of revenues as Orbital looks to expand its range of private contracts. Investors concerned about government sequestration and the fiscal cliff should feel confident about Orbital's continued expansion into private-sector-supplied contracts.

The company's larger competitors, such as Raytheon (NYS: RTN) in the defense sphere and Boeing and Lockheed Martin (NYS: LMT) in space systems, greatly dwarf Orbital in size and resources. Still, the company wields impressive influence in its niche. Orbital commands a 60% market share of small launch vehicles and a 55% market share in small communications satellites. The latter offer significant room for growing revenues, though also growing competition, as nations around the world attempt to develop a space presence.

Not quite up, up, and away
Orbital's financials aren't as out-of-this-world as its business, but the company has performed better as of late. Q2 operating margins for the trailing 12 months of more than 7% were nearly a percentage point above the five-year average. Orbital has beaten earnings expectations seven out of the last eight quarters, although the most recent quarter saw earnings decline by nearly a third year-over-year.

The company's satellite and space systems posted the largest operating income by segment in 2011, growing by $4 million to more than $37 million. That division's revenues have grown substantially since 2009, increasing more than 50%. Meanwhile, Orbital's launch vehicle branch saw operating income decline by a third from 2010 to 2011, due in part to the failure of its Taurus rocket.

For all its ho-hum financial numbers, however, Orbital has masterfully controlled its debt. While you could forgive a company launching expensive rockets into space for carrying a hefty load of debt, Orbital boasts long-term debt to equity of only 20% and holds a boatload of cash.

Orbital stands on steady if unspectacular ground as it reaches for the stars. The company's array of contracts and range of products give it some protection against potential government budget cuts, and the future of commercial space ventures looks sky-high. With a reasonably priced stock expected to grow considerably in coming years, now's the time to get aboard this blossoming company in an exciting and rapidly developing industry.

The future is arriving before our eyes, and you'll want to make the right moves to get a piece of the action. The Motley Fool has identified one stock poised to explode with advances in technology that you can learn all about in our free special report "The Next Trillion Dollar Revolution."

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Fool contributorDan Carrollholds no positions in the stocks mentioned in this article.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended buying shares of Orbital Sciences. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe thatconsidering a diverse range of insightsmakes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days.

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