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SpaceX signs its first major deal to launch a commercial satellite [Updated]

March 16, 2010 |  1:48 pm

Hawthorne-based Space  Exploration Technologies Corp. signed its first major deal to launch a commercial satellite into orbit.Falcon9

The company, also known as SpaceX, made the agreement with Palo Alto's Loral Space & Communications Inc.’s space system unit.

It's a boost for privately-funded SpaceX, because up until now it relied mainly on launch contracts with the U.S. government.

[Updated 3:42 p.m.: The headline and text of an earlier version of this post said SpaceX's deal with Loral was its first commercial contract. SpaceX has won smaller commercial contracts.]

"This is a big step for the company," said Carissa Bryce Christensen, managing partner with the Tauri Group, an analytic consulting firm in Alexandria, Va. "To be part of the launch backbone of the country, and the world, you have to demonstrate that you can serve the commercial customer."

The Falcon 9, the 180-foot-tall rocket that will boost the satellite, is still unproven. Its maiden flight is set to launch as early as April. It is currently upright at Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station undergoing testing.

In the wake of President Obama's budget proposal to outsource space travel to private businesses, the nine-engine booster is a major contender to assume NASA's responsibilities in hauling astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station.

Started by PayPal Inc. co-founder Elon Musk, SpaceX has a $1.6-billion contract for 12 flights to transport cargo for NASA in the coming years.

"With numerous Falcon 9 launches on their manifest over the next two years, we are assured of a successful flight history in advance of our mission," John Celli, president of Space Systems/Loral's satellite unit, said in a statement.

According to the two companies, the launch will take place as early as 2012.

-- W.J. Hennigan

Photo: SpaceX Falcon 9 on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Credit: SpaceX