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SpaceX inks first major commercial rocket launch deal [Updated]

March 16, 2010 | 12:32 pm

SpaceX Falcon 9 on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral. Credit: SpaceX

In a major boost to development of privately funded rockets, Hawthorne-based Space Exploration Technologies Corp. has signed a deal to launch a commercial satellite for Loral Space & Communications Inc.'s space system unit.

Up until now, the company, also known as SpaceX, had relied mainly on government contracts for its rocket to lift payloads into space. It won its first major commercial contract even though it has had only a single successful rocket launch.

[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 180-foot-tall rocket that will boost the satellite into orbit, the Falcon 9, is still unproven. SpaceX expects to launch the rocket for the first time as early as April. It is currently upright at Cape Canaveral undergoing testing.

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

SpaceX currently has a $1.6-billion contract for 12 flights to transport 20 tons of cargo to the space station for NASA through 2016. The company was started by PayPal Inc. co-founder Elon Musk.

"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