SpaceX Launches Ahead

SpaceX's Dragon Spacecraft with solar panels deployed
Source: SpaceX
SpaceX's Dragon Spacecraft with solar panels deployed

Elon Musk sounded almost giddy on the conference call with reporters.

Space Exploration, or SpaceX, a company he founded with his PayPal fortune, landed what is believed to be the largest commercial rocket launch contract ever.

Iridium has awarded Musk's fledgling rocket company a $492 million contractto launch most of Iridium's 72 next generation satellites, starting in 2015. The financial figure could "potentially go beyond that if they increase the constellation," Musk says.

The fact that Iridium has come back from the dead and now taken a gamble on the hottest rocket company in America is quite a story. In February of 2009, Ispoke with Iridium CEO Matt Desch about his outlook. A year later, Elon Musk outlined his plans for SpaceX.

At the time, it didn't occur to me the two would end up working together. Iridium stock has underperformed the broader market until this month, when it awarded the bulk of the $2.9 billion set aside to build and launch new satellites to satellite builder Thales-Alenia over Lockheed Martin .

Musk told reporters the Falcon 9 rocket, which had a successful test launch 12 days ago, is "the vehicle of choice not just for NASA, but also the commercial sector." NASA has already awarded SpaceX a $1.6 billion contract to shuttle cargo to the International Space Station. That contract could double if SpaceX wins business to shuttle astronauts as well.

All of the Iridium launch work will be in the U.S.

Musk says it may be the first major commercial contract landed by an American company in a decade. "We won a global competition." Over half of the firm's contracts are now for commercial launches. SpaceX will have over 40 launches on its manifest by the end of the year, and the company will begin construction in 2011 on converting a Titan launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base for Iridium. Musk won't comment on how many launches SpaceX will do for Iridium, but it will be "smaller than ten". Raymond James believes the Falcon 9 could be capable of carrying as many as nine Iridium satellites per launch. Iridium says it will also potentially issue another launch contract to a second company, though Musk describes that as more of a back-up policy.

Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal reported that SpaceX would need $1 billion in the next two years to survive. Musk says the article was "rife" with inaccuracies. "We don't need $1 billion," he says. The company has been profitable for three years, and he says it will be profitable again this year. "We don't need any investment," he says, though Musk adds the company may secure some debt for working capital. "We may take a strategic investment" later this year, he says, but repeats, "We are not seeking any investment."

Finally, Musk says the next launch for SpaceX will be toward the end of summer, when the Falcon 9 takes off carrying an operational version of the Dragon space capsule SpaceX wants to use in its NASA missions. The June 4th test of the rocket was nearly flawless, but the first stage broke up on reentry, potentially disabling it for reuse. "I would personally not consider SpaceX a success if we don't make reusability work," Musk says. "Even if we ended up with 100 percent market share, I would consider it a failure."

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