It all began with TOS, a commercial spaceship conceived in the Reagan era

Orbital Sciences Corporation was founded in 1982 by three young guys just out of business school with little experience, no money, a taste for adventure and an obvious lack of common sense.  They and the daredevils that joined them made a foolish, long-odds bet consistent with Bob Dylan’s lyric, “When you ain’t got nothin, you’ve got nothin to lose,”

Nevertheless, Orbital grew to become a pioneer of the commercial space age:  The company’s initial product, the Transfer Orbit Stage was the first space system funded by a Wall Street financial offering.  Pegasus was the world’s first commercially developed launch vehicle to reach orbit.  Orbital’s subsidiaries, ORBCOMM and ORBIMAGE, pioneered the use of small, low-earth-orbit satellites for data communications and remote sensing.  Orbital’s Antares launcher and Cygnus autonomous cargo vehicle deliver supplies to the Space Station on a routine basis.  Its Ground-Based Missile Defense boosters are locked and loaded to swat down anything North Korea launches this direction.

Pegasus released from Orbital’s Stargazer mother ship

Antares lifts off from Wallops Island, Virginia

Crammed with supplies, Cygnus approaches the Space Station doing 17,000 mph (though at a safe 1 ft/sec relative velocity)


Orbital was the first commercial space company to go public in 1990 (NYSE: ORB).


Its merger with Alliant TechSystems in 2015 created Orbital ATK, a diversified aerospace and defense firm (NYSE: OA) with 12,000 employees and almost $5 billion in sales.


David Thompson, the visionary co-founder and CEO of Orbital, understood the bigger role of the company from the beginning.  In 1982 he said that early commercial space successes would start to divert private capital from traditional investments into space ventures, leading in time to significant flows of money not limited by the imagination and politics of government.  Things would then get pretty interesting.

It’s happening.  Commercial space is thriving.  New space companies are proliferating and sprouting new ideas and capabilities.  Articles on this “New Space Race” tend to focus on flashy new entrants, often skipping over Orbital ATK (a quiet company), yet long observers of commercial space know that Orbital was among the first to venture into this uncharted territory.

I’ve enjoyed a pretty thrilling view of Orbital’s and Orbital ATK’s journey as a co-founder and former executive of the former and board member of both.  So it was with some bittersweet reflections that I voted with the company’s board this weekend to approve the sale of Orbital ATK to Northrop Grumman.