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David Thompson and his team at Orbital Sciences are betting that the International Space Station will need supplies for decades.

Rocket scientist finds profit in final frontier

– Space travel isn’t limited to the dreams of entrepreneurs looking to explore new worlds after making their billions of dollars on terra firma.

David Thompson, 58, has made space travel his life’s work. He runs Orbital Sciences, a profitable space exploration company in Dulles, Va. It employs 3,600 people, half of whom are rocket scientists. About 2,000 of Orbital’s employees work in the Washington area. Most of the others are at Orbital’s rocket factory in Arizona.

Orbital has designed and built nearly 1,000 rockets and satellites in the past three decades, sending aloft commercial and science gear and military spy gizmos.

The company launches its rockets from all major U.S. spaceports, including Wallops Island, a remote stretch off Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

The company touches Americans more than they know.

“If you, as virtually all American households do, have something other than over-the-air television … you are almost certainly getting that programming, at least in part, through satellites that we built,” Thompson said.

Orbital – based in a series of buildings on Warp Drive (yes, that’s the name of the street) – basks in its gee-whiz glamour. It names its conference rooms after space scientists. It hires former astronauts. Its satellite factory in Dulles looks like a science-fiction movie set.

Thompson’s light-filled office reflects a career that includes stops at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, California Institute of Technology, Harvard, NASA and Hughes Aircraft.

Orbital’s mission has been to unlock the commercial possibilities of outer space, making it affordable for clients and profitable for shareholders.

The company earned $61 million in 2012 on revenue of $1.43 billion. Orbital has made money in all but a couple of the 22 years it has been a publicly traded firm.

Orbital’s revenue is sourced about equally between commercial customers, the defense industry and civil government agencies, such as NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Thompson is constantly on the hunt to increase revenue – and now he thinks he has found the next big thing: an unmanned cargo delivery vehicle called Cygnus that resupplies the International Space Station.

Cygnus, launched by an Orbital-built Antares rocket, successfully completed in September the first of what Thompson hopes is a series of cargo runs that could supply the space station as long as it orbits the Earth – maybe for decades.

Thompson has had the space bug since he was a kid. While he was at Harvard, he and two classmates worked on a project that focused on the possibility of making money from outer space.

They eventually turned the idea into reality, pooling $500 each to start in the early 1980s. They exhausted their credit card limits and knocked on doors for funding and for customers.

Some of his first business ideas involved commercially reliable space ventures built around the emerging space shuttle program.

“The space shuttle, however, did not turn out to be the railroad to space that the space community had hoped,” Thompson said.

Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, Orbital made its money in three areas: building communications and imaging devices, missile defense systems, and scientific and environmental satellites.

Not everything has worked.

But Thompson and his team are betting that the space station will be around for decades, creating a need for everything from food, water, oxygen and clothes to spare parts and scientific experiments.

“You’ve got this hundred billion-dollar laboratory up there, and you got typically six people up there all the time,” he said. “And it takes a lot to run.”

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