2012 has been big for the business of space. We've witnessed the first docking of a private spaceship to the International Space Station, seen billions of NASA dollars committed to the future, and watched the future of the space program take flight with the retirement of the space shuttle. As successful as 2012's been, 2013 could be even greater for investors and space enthusiasts alike. From public companies such as Orbital Sciences (NYSE: ORB ) to private ventures, the sky won't be the limit in the New Year.
Orbital Sciences reaching for orbit
Orbital Sciences hasn't had the greatest 2012 -- its stock has fallen nearly 10% year to date -- but there's no doubt that this is a company making moves. Orbital's managed to turn around its finances over the past year, boosting margins across its three operating segments and snapping up NASA contracts in preparation for the year ahead.
What does Orbital have ready for the year ahead? The most important event investors need to watch is the company's response to SpaceX's successful docking with the ISS. Orbital's answer to SpaceX's Dragon capsule -- the Cygnus spacecraft -- will launch in April atop one of the company's Antares rockets on a demonstration docking mission to the ISS. If successful, Orbital will meet the program milestones set about in NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Systems program.
That will set the wheels in motion for the company to capitalize on its $1.9 billion contract for NASA's Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program. Teaming up with SpaceX, Orbital's slated to provide 15 resupply missions to the ISS, and the company hopes for at least one next year. Company spokesperson Barron Beneski said, "We would certainly expect, if we go in April with the demo mission, to carry out at least one CRS mission in 2013 ... Orbital could certainly do two."
Much of this lofty goal will rely on NASA, but Orbital's got other plans set up for the upcoming year as well. The company's been expanding its contracts with the Department of Defense recently -- and while everyone's watching the DOD regarding the expected fiscal cliff hit, there's still plenty of wind in Orbital's sails. The company picked up part of a $900 million DOD contract along with SpaceX and Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT ) earlier this month. Additionally, Orbital's also grabbed space launch contracts with other companies that should help out in 2013, replacing SpaceX as a rocket subcontractor with Stratolaunch Systems for an air-to-space launch system slated for a 2017 test.
Around the defense sector's space ventures
Orbital's not the only public company making waves in the space sector, however -- and certainly not the biggest.
Aerospace colossus Boeing (NYSE: BA ) has been busy in 2012, and things won't slow down in 2013. It picked up a contract in August worth $460 million as part of a billion-dollar push by NASA for "space taxis" to ferry astronauts to the ISS; while the company's CST-1000 capsule won't launch until 2016, investors should get a healthy dose of the program's progress to watch in the coming year. The company's also continued progress on its Space Launch System (SLS) over the past year as part of a NASA contract to send humans past low Earth orbit; with a critical review set for 2014, expect a big push next year.
Far more attention-gathering has been the company's "space plane" it has developed and launched twice in the past year. Boeing's reusable X-37B spacecraft launched back into orbit earlier this month, and there's no telling how long it will stay in space: Previous missions for the craft have left it in orbit for months at a time. While the project's been a much-speculated secret so far, the reusability of the X-37B could mean big things for Boeing's future in space if the latest flight also goes according to plan.
Fellow aerospace giant Lockheed Martin has also been making the push to the stars. It's hiked revenues at its space systems division by more than 5% over 2012's first nine months. With the aforementioned contract with Orbital and Lockheed in hand along with its progress on the Orion rocket, Lockheed's space division should continue looking starry in 2013.
All eyes on SpaceX
It's not just public companies that space-enthused investors will need to watch in 2013, however.
Tesla Motors (Nasdaq: TSLA ) founder Elon Musk's SpaceX has commanded the world's attention since the docking with the ISS, with billions of dollars in contracts set through 2017. The company's competing heavily with Orbital in resupplying the space station, and Musk has SpaceX's sights set even farther: The company's founder has said he eventually wants to build a Mars colony.
That obviously won't happen next year, which is a real shame. What could happen next year is SpaceX's IPO, however. While the company furthers its supplying of the space station with more Dragon launches, you could get your hands in on the most talked-about space company's stock if things go according to plan. The company was valued at more than $4 billion after its first ISS mission earlier in 2012; if SpaceX continues toward its goal of human spaceflight, that number could rise.
Racing to space in 2013
Nothing's set in stone, particularly in an industry as high-risk, high-reward as space. NASA still has to green-light many plans in the works, and sequestration could end up hammering the DOD's space contracts in the New Year if the worst comes to pass. Nonetheless, from Orbital to SpaceX, companies are furiously making a push to the stars -- and 2013 should see even more progress than a star-studded 2012 as the private race for space heats up.
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