SpaceX successfully launched a classified Air Force drone from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida as Hurricane Irma barrels toward the state.
Space Exploration Technologies Corp. launched the Air Force space plane around 10 a.m. local time Thursday, despite warnings earlier in the morning the weather was only 50 percent favorable for the mission. Irma was forecast to be about 900 miles southeast of the launch site during Thursday’s take-off, with a separate storm system causing the earlier lift-off uncertainty, according to the nearby Patrick Air Force Base.
The launch was the fifth mission for the 11,000-pound autonomous spacecraft, but the first involving SpaceX. The company’s Falcon 9 rocket won U.S. Air Force certification for national security space missions in May 2015, breaking a lock long-held by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. Thursday’s successful X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle launch marks an important step as Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk looks to secure more lucrative military launch contracts.
For years, the Air Force has refused to say what the military vehicle built by Boeing does. The most recent X-37B mission ended in May after more than 700 days circling the Earth.
An X-37B is only launched once every few years, so the program itself doesn’t have a major financial impact on SpaceX, said Brian Weeden, the director of program planning for the Secure World Foundation, a space policy think tank.
Still, a successful launch is critical for building the Air Force’s “comfort level with launching national security payloads on SpaceX,” Weeden said ahead of the launch.
Contracts for military launches include satellites that let troops communicate on battlefields and are estimated to be valued at about $70 billion through 2030, according to a 2014 government report. In May, SpaceX launched a rocket carrying NROL-76, a classified payload for the National Reconnaissance Office.
After launching the space plane, SpaceX successfully recovered the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket on land, according to a webcast. Refurbishing and reusing rockets is a key step in Musk’s goal of making spaceflight affordable like plane travel. Thursday’s launch was the 13th Falcon 9 launch of the year.
SpaceX plans to fly 20 to 24 missions in 2017 for customers that include the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and commercial satellite operators. The Hawthorne, California-based company has contracts with NASA valued at $4.2 billion to resupply the International Space Station using an unmanned Dragon spacecraft and to ultimately ferry astronauts there with a version of Dragon that is capable of carrying crews.
Musk, SpaceX’s CEO, saw his net worth rise by about $4 billion after SpaceX’s latest fundraising round valued the company at around $21 billion. The 46-year-old also runs electric-car maker Tesla Inc.
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