"NASA, rejecting aerospace giants Lockheed (NYSE:LMT) and Boeing (NYSE:BA), awarded $3.5 billion in contracts to start-up companies on Tuesday to deliver cargo to the International Space Station after the U.S. space shuttles are retired."
-- Reuters

On Christmas Eve-Eve, NASA finally announced the results of its long-running Commercial Resupply Services competition, and as the tidbit above correctly points out, neither Lockheed nor Boeing (nor Alliant Techsystems (NYSE:ATK), for that matter) wound up in the winners circle. What you may not know, is that none of these three companies were actually bidding for the contract at all, at least not directly.

Instead, these three giants of the aerospace industry chose to hitch their carts to a foal of a company named PlanetSpace, which acted as the prime contractor in the bid. Turns out, NASA was not amused -- nor impressed.

Instead of awarding its $3.5 billion in cosmic-milk-run contracts to "Big Space" in the person of little PlanetSpace, NASA went with trusted workhorses this time:

  • Orbital Sciences (NYSE:ORB) will make eight deliveries to the International Space Station, and be paid $1.9 billion for its trouble.
  • SpaceX -- the cosmic project that Elon Musk took up after selling his beloved PayPal to eBay (NASDAQ:EBAY) -- gets $1.6 billion to make a dozen runs.

Now, Reuters may consider these two firms "start-ups", but the fact is that unlike PlanetSpace, both have already been vetted by NASA, and found superior. In the recent Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) contest, for example, Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendation Orbital (25 years old, and so hardly a start-up) received $171 million worth of funding. Meanwhile, SpaceX got off to a running start with a $278 million contract of its own. (Not bad for a start-up, eh?)

What's it mean to you?
Obviously, you cannot invest in privately held SpaceX and share in its success -- yet. Orbital, in contrast, has been racking up win after win in this cosmic sphere. Selling for a 17 P/E , and with long-term growth posited at only 15%, Orbital may not look like a great buy. But the company generates free cash flow far in excess of its reported GAAP earnings, and is moving fast to capture market share in the medium-size launch rocket business with its Taurus II vehicle.

Foolish takeaway
With a string of contract wins that just keeps growing, an attractive price, and sky-high growth prospects, this is one rocket stock that could well live up to its name.

For further reading on the final frontier, why not try out:

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.