(Bloomberg) -- Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. kicked off its first launch of a busy 2019, blasting a rocket carrying satellites for longtime customer Iridium Communications Inc. into orbit.
The Falcon 9 rocket lifted off Friday from Vandenberg Air Force Base on California’s central coast at 7:31 a.m. local time carrying 10 Iridium NEXT satellites. These are the last of 75 that replace Iridium’s existing commercial communication satellite network. Deployment will begin about an hour after launch, according to SpaceX’s press kit. SpaceX landed the rocket’s first stage on a unmanned drone ship in the Pacific Ocean.
SpaceX, along with Boeing Co., has a contract with NASA to ferry American astronauts to the International Space Station as part of what’s known as the Commercial Crew program, but the timeline for the first flights has slipped repeatedly. The agency now says that SpaceX’s first uncrewed demonstration flight, known as Demo-1, will happen “no earlier than February.” Musk recently tweeted that SpaceX was “about a month away” from the first orbital test flight.
The company set a company record last year with 21 launches for customers including commercial satellite operators, NASA and the U.S. military. But much of the focus this year will be the race to see who is first to put humans into space and safely bring them back. SpaceX, Boeing, Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin all see space tourism as a huge business opportunity.
SpaceX’s valuation has climbed as it has racked up successful missions, making it the third-most valuable venture-backed startup in the U.S. after Uber Technologies Inc. and Airbnb Inc. On Jan. 3, Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX disclosed in an SEC filing that it has sold $273 million in equity to eight investors as part of a $500 million investment.
--With assistance from Justin Bachman.
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