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Orbital Sciences Corp.

That's one of Orbital Sciences' rockets, the Taurus XL, getting prepped before carrying NASA's Glory satellite into low-Earth orbit.

Photo courtesy NASA/Randy Beaudoin

Open the space catalog of Virginia-based Orbital Science Corp. and you'll find small- and medium-class rockets, along with launch services covering orbiting satellites, deep space probes and payload deliveries to high altitudes. Its clientele encompasses the commercial, military and civil government sectors, including NASA, with whom it secured a $1.9-billion contract to fly eight cargo missions to the International Space Station (ISS).

The company originally planned to send its first rocket delivery van to the ISS late in 2012, but that date has slipped to the end of 2013. As of Sept. 23, 2013, its Antares rocket had successfully launched its cargo vehicle, Cygnus, into space for its first demonstration mission, but was waved off due to a software problem. Once fixed, the craft was slated to dock with the ISS and remain there until October 2013 [sources: Achenbach; Kramer; MSNBC; NASA].

Like others embarked on the rough road to space, the company has suffered its share of setbacks: In June 2011, an engine caught fire during a ground test and, that April, NASA's Commercial Crew Development program bypassed funding its Prometheus space plane, after which the company backed away from the project [source: Kramer and Chang].

Still, as the contenders in the new space race round the first turn, Orbital remains strong in the pack. By developing a launch abort system for NASA's Orion crew capsule, it maintains a stake in the space agency's future endeavors, while also hedging its bets across public and private space sectors.

Orbital, a survivor of fickle space budgets since 1982, knows how to stack the odds in its favor. It's a lesson worth learning for any challenger who wants to survive and thrive in the new space age.

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