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Orbital Science shares crashing after rocket explosion

An unmanned Antares rocket is seen exploding seconds after lift off from a commercial launch pad An unmanned Antares rocket is seen exploding seconds after lift off from a commercial launch pad
An unmanned Antares rocket is seen exploding seconds after lift off from a commercial launch pad Photograph by NASA — Reuters

An unmanned NASA-contracted rocket exploded shortly after takeoff earlier this evening, and now the rocket manufacturer’s stock price is going up in smoke.

Orbital Science (ORB), which has a $1.9 billion contract with NASA for eight supply flights to the International Space Station, had seen its stock climb nearly 3% in market trading today, ahead of the launch. But tonight it’s off more than 15.5%, falling from $30.37 per share to $25.65 per share.

That’s more than $287 million in lost market cap, and also raises questions about the pending merger of Orbital’s aerospace and defense group with Alliant Techsystems Inc. (ATK). The two companies announced the merger on April 29, when Orbital stock opened at $34.02 per share and closed at $30.96 per share. Shareholders of both companies are scheduled to vote on the deal December 9. ATK stock is unchanged in aftermarket trading.

In a statement this evening, Orbital said the following:

Shortly after lift-off from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport Pad 0A at 6:22 p.m. (EDT), the vehicle suffered a catastrophic failure. According to NASA’s emergency operations officials, there were no casualties and property damage was limited to the south end of Wallops Island. Orbital has formed an anomaly investigation board, which will work in close coordination with all appropriate government agencies, to determine the cause of today’s mishap.

“It is far too early to know the details of what happened,” said Mr. Frank Culbertson, Orbital’s Executive Vice President and General Manager of its Advanced Programs Group. “As we begin to gather information, our primary concern lies with the ongoing safety and security of those involved in our response and recovery operations. We will conduct a thorough investigation immediately to determine the cause of this failure and what steps can be taken to avoid a repeat of this incident. As soon as we understand the cause we will begin the necessary work to return to flight to support our customers and the nation’s space program.”

NASA reports that all of its personnel are accounted for, and there are no reports of injuries on the ground.

Orbital previously launched three rockets with attached cargo ships under its NASA contract (one of which was a demo). NASA also has a similar contract with Elon Musk’s SpaceX.