SpaceX's rocket carrying supplies to the International Space Station may have exploded into a million pieces this past weekend, but the company's dream of sending up manned spaceflights in 2017 are undaunted, according to the company.
Since SpaceX is still a private company, investors don't pay for the woes of failed missions. But some other public space exploration competitors are worth investing in because they're more diversified, say analysts.
These competitors also offer a down-to-earth advantage: profitable core businesses that aren't just tied to wobbly space fortunes. Extra sales boosts come from growing satellite or aerospace niches, which lend stability in a space race awash in liftoff failures.
Take Orbital ATK, which makes rockets and satellites and is a SpaceX competitor. Orbital ATK, which is a recent merger between two space companies, has its Antares rocket that's meant to supply the International Space Station. Not that all of its blasters are on go, though. The rocket was supposed to deliver a Cygnus cargo spacecraft full of supplies, but it exploded last October. So the company has a retooled rocket that's scheduled to be launched next year.
Not to worry, say analysts. Orbital ATK has a strong aerospace and defense business, too. And the company also recently said that its commercial satellite business has been gaining traction. Morgan Stanley, which has a target price of $100 on the stock, expects Orbital revenues to grow nearly 4 percent annually through 2017.
But Orbital's earnings will grow even faster. Synergies gleaned from the merger should bump up cash flow by $1 billion over the next four years, said Raymond James analyst Chris Quilty.
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The company is also more entrepreneurial than other defense contractors, said Quilty, who has an outperform rating on Orbital. "Both prior companies had affordable, agile product development," he added.
Most big defense companies have a space presence, too, said Sterne Agee senior research analyst Peter Arment.
Several years ago, Boeing forged a joint venture with Lockheed Martin called the United Launch Alliance, which has several government contracts for launch services, like rockets and national security satellites. Boeing's earnings from the space rocket alliance are still relatively small for the giant aerospace company. But the alliance already handles most of the nation's space launches and is introducing new, cheaper Vulcan rockets in 2019 that will better compete with SpaceX, which had a glowing track record until the recent explosion.
Boeing is also developing its own CST-100 spaceship, which can carry up to seven astronauts. Last year Boeing got $4.2 billion in funding from NASA for the spaceship, which is slated to carry astronauts to the International Space Station by 2017.
But Boeing's revenues are mainly driven by demand for its jet planes. Along with Airbus, Boeing has a near monopoly on the commercial aircraft business. And air travel has consistently grown 1.5 percent faster than the GDP long-term, according to Morningstar estimates.
"Boeing will be generating a lot of cash," added Arment, who has a buy rating on Boeing. "And investors are paying attention."
Morningstar senior equity analyst Neal Dihora agrees. He said that Boeing is benefiting as airlines replace existing aircraft with ones that use less fuel. "The next five years of growth is locked and loaded," said Dihora, since Boeing has a massive order backlog of 5,700 airplanes—or about five years' worth of sales. He expects Boeing's revenue, now at $90.7 billion, to accelerate 7.2 percent, to $102 billion, in 2016 alone.
Lockheed Martin also has its Orion spacecraft, which is designed for deep-space exploration. And last year, the company bought Astrotech Space Operations, a satellite launch-preparation services company, to add to its space portfolio. "The acquisition brought small satellite capability," Arment said, so the company can add a new niche.
But the company also relies heavily on Department of Defense spending for fighter aircraft, missile defense systems and many other defense products, which has driven revenues over the past three years, said Arment. According to Morningstar estimates, Lockheed Martin is slated to have slightly declining revenues, as defense spending cuts kick in. Currently, space systems account for only 18 percent of 2014 revenues of $45.6 billion, according to Morgan Stanley research.
Still, the company is also investor-friendly, added Arment, and has had stable revenues, stock buybacks and a hefty 3.2 percent dividend yield.
Like SpaceX, other companies are banking on satellites, too.
DigitalGlobe offers high-resolution satellite imaging that scans the Earth and then maps or analyzes the images, which is a fast-growing industry. Once dependent on government contracts, the satellite operator is increasingly snagging big commercial customers, like Yahoo and Apple, said Quilty, along with operating five satellites for Google.
"The company can remotely measure the height of oil storage tanks or give post-tornado damage assessments," said Quilty, who has a strong buy on the stock. Revenue, now at $654.6 million, is slated to grow 10 percent per year, he added, for several years.
Though still fraught with missteps, space may indeed be the next investment frontier.
—By Constance Gustke, special to CNBC.com