Orbital Sciences Up, Up, and Away

Space systems firm Orbital Sciences (NYSE: ORB  ) revealed on Saturday that its Hyper-X Launch Vehicle successfully boosted NASA's experimental X-43A supersonic combustion ramjet (or "scramjet") plane to its first hypersonic flight, nearly three years after an initial botched test.

Orbital's booster, a modified version of its Pegasus rocket, performed as planned by accelerating the X-43A -- which is built by Alliant Techsystems (NYSE: ATK  ) with support from Boeing (NYSE: BA  ) -- to Mach 7 before the plane separated and started its scramjet engine. The engine, a technological marvel that employs no moving parts, allowed the X-43A to briefly cruise at 5,000 miles per hour, the fastest flight ever for a jet aircraft.

The accomplishment is a nice turnaround for Orbital following a rocky start. NASA is one of Orbital's chief customers, providing 10% or more of the firm's $581.5 million in 2003 revenues. Naturally, keeping the space agency happy is a high priority.

In June 2001, NASA terminated the X-43A's first flight when Orbital's rocket veered off course shortly after launch. That failure created other headaches, as just days later NASA delayed the launch of an Orbital Pegasus XL rocket carrying a solar imaging satellite, fearing that the Pegasus rocket shared potential problems that doomed the X-43A launch. The Pegasus was eventually cleared, but Orbital was forced to make modifications to the X-43A booster's control system.

NASA built three X-43As as part of a seven-year, $230 million program begun in 2001. If the second flight had failed, NASA doubtless would have scrapped the third planned test and possibly halted further scramjet development. Orbital's standing at NASA surely would have taken a serious hit.

Even before Saturday's demonstration, the scramjet had been hailed as a revolutionary propulsion system for future space launch vehicles and commercial aircraft. The successful test should clear the way for development of the more capable X-43C vehicle, which is scheduled for launch in 2007. By acing the latest test, Orbital may have secured a place in future scramjet work, which should have investors flying high.

Interested in space exploration? Talk about it with other Fools on the space exploration & terraforming discussion board.

Brian Gormanis a freelance writer living in Chicago, Ill. He does not own shares of any companies mentioned here.


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