After reading Orbital Sciences' (NYSE:ORB) 2009 earnings report, the best I can manage is a shrug of dismissal. Though things look stellar on the surface of this rocket-jock, it's still time to walk away.

Ready for blastoff?
The death-by-a-thousand-defense-spending cuts that many predicted came true, causing real problems and program cancellations for companies across the aerospace and defense industry, from Boeing (NYSE:BA) to Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT) to Northrop Grumman (NYSE:NOC). Nonetheless, Orbital emerged from 2009 in fine form. Even the cancellation of KEI -- bad news for lead contractor Northrop Grumman and co-subcontractors Raytheon (NYSE:RTN) and Alliant TechSystems (NYSE:ATK) as well -- wasn't enough to do the company in.

For the full year, Orbital's sales declined only 4%, and while profits took a header, they're bound to return in time. While Orbital took in just $1.1 billion in revenue in 2009, the company also captured $1.9 billion in new orders and "option exercises" under existing government contracts. With a backlog now totaling $4.9 billion, Orbital's future seems secure. It's got enough work to keep it busy for years, and over these years, I expect profits to return in abundance.

…Or not
So why does Orbital merit only a shrug? The more I look at it, the more Orbital seems to me a typical heavy-industry, capital-intensive business, unlikely to generate the type of cash profits I seek in any reliable abundance.

In 2009, Orbital generated $59 million in free cash flow. On a $1 billion market cap, that's not a bad cash haul for the year. All other things equal, I'd ordinarily gamble that the company can achieve the 15% long-term growth that analysts project, and buy the stock.

Unfortunately, all things are not equal. According to the projections Orbital gave in yesterday's release, the company intends to burn more than $60 million in 2010, wiping out all the cash profits it earned last year. I understand that the cash outlays are necessary to prepare the company to captitalize on its vast backlog of work. Nonetheless, two straight years of hard work will leave Orbital with essentially no cash to show for its efforts.

Foolish takeaway
Fools, I have to applaud Orbital's leading role in humanity's conquest of space. I wish it all the best in capitalizing on President Obama's initiative to privatize elements of the national space program. But if the company can't reliably generate free cash flow in the process, I'm forced to conclude that Orbital's no rocket stock. It's a dud.

Of course, not all Fools agree with me. Orbital is actually one of our Motley Fool Rule Breakers team's favorite companies. Is their bull case capable of goring my bear arguments? Take a free 30-day trial and find out.

Fool contributor Rich Smith has no position in any stocks named above. Orbital Sciences is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers pick. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.