Orbital Sciences' shares slide as its unmanned rocket explodes after liftoff

NEW YORK, N.Y. – Shares of Orbital Sciences tumbled in Wednesday morning trading after the aerospace company’s unmanned rocket bound for the International Space Station exploded moments after liftoff on Tuesday evening.

No injuries were reported.

The Orbital Sciences’ Antares commercial supply rocket blew up over the beachside launch complex at Wallops Island in Virginia. The company said everyone at the site had been accounted for, and the damage appeared to be limited to the facilities.

NASA is paying billions of dollars to Orbital Sciences and the SpaceX company to make deliveries to the Space Station, and it’s counting on SpaceX and Boeing to start flying U.S. astronauts to the orbiting lab as early as 2017. This was to be the fourth flight by Orbital Sciences to the Space Station.

Until Tuesday, all of the supply missions by Orbital Sciences, based in Dulles, Virginia, and Elon Musk’s SpaceX, had gone off with no major problems.

Orbital Sciences carried insurance on the failed Tuesday mission, and Executive Vice-President Frank Culbertson said that it would not fly until it understands the root cause of the incident.

Howard Rubel of Jefferies said in a client note that the rocket’s failure “may hamper, but not prevent, Orbital from signing contracts with additional customers for Antares.”

For some context, Rubel said that the last time Orbital had a major rocket failure was in 2011 during a Taurus XL launch. The day of that failure, Rubel said, Orbital’s stock fell as much as 8 per cent but wound up making back some ground, closing down about 1.6 per cent.

In the 2011 failure, a climate satellite fell into the Pacific shortly after lifting off.

Shares of Orbital Sciences Corp. dropped $4.35, or 14.3 per cent, to $26.02 in early trading on the New York Stock Exchange on Wednesday.