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Falcon Heavy's first commercial flight is 'huge' as 'an inflection point' for SpaceX, banker says

Key Points
  • For all the power SpaceX's rocket Falcon Heavy's had question remained of whether Falcon Heavy would succeed in both winning contracts and launching valuable payloads.
  • "To actually classify a launch as commercial, not as a test, is huge," Ann Kim, managing director of Silicon Valley Bank's frontier technology group, told CNBC.
  • "Revenue creation is so important because it confirms that there are buyers out there," Kim added.
A close-up of SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket during launch.
SpaceX

Even though it wasn't the rocket's debut, "there's been a lot of anticipation" for the massive Falcon Heavy rocket's first commercial launch, said Ann Kim, a managing director at Silicon Valley Bank.

SpaceX flew Falcon Heavy flawlessly on Thursday, putting into orbit a large Saudi Arabian communications satellite. But to Kim, while the launch's execution may have been as dazzling as its maiden flight last year, the classification of Falcon Heavy's second flight made it far more important.

"To actually classify a launch as commercial, not as a test, is huge," Ann Kim, managing director of the bank's frontier technology group, told CNBC. Silicon Valley Bank is a California-based technology-focused bank, with $57 billion in assets as of the end of 2018.

"It's an inflection point," Kim added.

SpaceX launches the Falcon Heavy rocket on its first commercial mission.
SpaceX

Falcon Heavy ranks as the most powerful rocket in the world, with 27 engines creating 5.1 million pounds of thrust – the equivalent of about 18 Boeing 747 aircraft combined. For all the rocket's gusto, however, the question of whether Falcon Heavy would succeed in both winning contracts and launching valuable payloads remained. Falcon Heavy was unveiled in 2011 and, following development delays, Kim said "critics were thinking: 'When will revenue truly be generated?'"

The maiden launch did not carry a paying customer, but rather launched SpaceX CEO Elon Musk's car into orbit around the sun. The demonstration flight was enough for a few customers to sign on. Over the past year, the manifest of Falcon Heavy grew to five contracted missions. Two of those launch contracts came from the Air Force, showing key support from a customer with likely the world's highest rocket standards.

So until Falcon Heavy's launch on Thursday, Musk's company had yet to deliver on the money it had been paid for the rocket. That, more than anything, set the second flight of Falcon Heavy apart, Kim believes.

"Revenue creation is so important because it confirms that there are buyers out there," Kim said.

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Beyond contracts for national security launches and large satellites, SpaceX's Falcon Heavy is also under consideration for lucrative exploration missions. NASA's latest budget revealed an increased reliance on private companies like SpaceX, with the door now open for Falcon Heavy to launch missions that are worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

And, Kim noted, delivering for a customer isn't just important for getting more contracts. Falcon Heavy bringing in more money also begets increased investment in the broader company.

"Once the revenue turns on, that's when a whole host of other investors begin to come in," Kim said.

A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket lifts off from historic launch pad 39-A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S., February 6, 2018.
Joe Skipper | Reuters

Indeed, SpaceX's successes have meant investors continue to flood in, as the company's valuation is reportedly now at least $30.5 billion. Shares of SpaceX also remain in heavy demand on private markets.

"Historically investors shy away from aerospace deals, because they can't imagine when an opportunity or liquidity event will happen," Kim said.

But more investors are seeing opportunity in the changing space industry, as investment floods into private companies. Kim credited Musk with the vision and ambition for driving some of that change.

"Elon Musk brought in that kind of savage mind set of 'let's get this done,'" Kim said. "A lot of it was timing, as Elon Musk identified a really good market opportunity and had the funding available."