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SpaceX Starts Off 2017 Right

By Rich Smith – Updated Jan 26, 2017 at 12:23PM

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Successful launch ends with SpaceX's first-ever West Coast landing.

Four months after a SpaceX rocket exploded on its launch pad in Florida, SpaceX is back in space.

SpaceX makes a triumphant return to space -- four months after an explosion grounded it. Image source: SpaceX.

In a successful Saturday morning (Pacific time) launch, SpaceX sent 10 Iridium (IRDM 0.79%) communications satellites into low earth orbit (LEO) -- then capped its mission by relanding its Falcon 9 rocket on a barge at sea.

For the record, this was the first time SpaceX had landed a rocket after a West Coast launch, and it brought the Falcon down in a picture-perfect landing aboard its "Just Read the Instructions" remote-controlled drone barge in the Pacific. Also for the record, the landing marked SpaceX's seventh return to Earth. To date, it has landed rockets on drone barges five times, and landed on its launch pad twice.

What all of this means to investors

It's hard to exaggerate how important this mission was to SpaceX. "Thanks" to two failed launches in the past 21 months (one in June 2015, the second in September 2016), SpaceX's rocket fleet has been grounded for a total of 12 months out of the past 21. As fixed costs continued to mount, with no revenue to offset them, SpaceX was finally forced to admit last year that it is no longer "profitable and cash-flow positive." Another failure Saturday, while it wouldn't necessarily have doomed the company, would have drained the company's coffers even further, and potentially shaken the faith of its customers, hurting revenue down the line.

Happily, that's not the way things played out. SpaceX used its most recent four-month hiatus well, beating expectations for how fast it could get space-borne again, identifying what went wrong with the last explosion and fixing the problem in record time.

Now, SpaceX can get back to launching rockets -- and making up for lost time.

According to its manifest, SpaceX has at least 42 named missions lined up and awaiting launch, and reportedly has at least 70 missions total with customers signed up. Among them, Iridium hopes to have SpaceX launch 60 more "NEXT" communications satellites -- 10 at a time, encompassing six more Iridium missions. This year alone, the company hopes to conduct as many as 22 launches, including the maiden launch of its Falcon Heavy lift rocket, reuse of a previously launched-and-recovered Falcon 9, and an unmanned Crew Dragon test flight.

Meeting this ambitious schedule will be difficult with the company's Launch Complex 40 (at Cape Canaveral) still out of commission since the September explosion, but SpaceX is hoping to shift operations to Launch Pad 39A in the interim. Plus, there's Vandenberg Air Force Base (from which Saturday's mission took off) available, and ongoing construction of a new spaceport in Texas to look forward to (estimated opening date: 2018).

Making these remaining launch assets work to support SpaceX's launch schedule will be a bit of a juggling act, as Vandenberg, for example, isn't an ideal location for launching LEO missions, while SpaceX hasn't yet had an opportunity to put 39A into operation. Kinks could still emerge in getting that one up and running. But really, that's all quibbling.

The headline today is still that "SpaceX is back in space." Boeing and Lockheed Martin's reprieve has proven short-lived, and now their United Launch Alliance joint venture will be forced to compete with SpaceX on price yet again. Good luck with that.

Rich Smith does not own shares of, nor is he short, any company named above. You can find him on Motley Fool CAPS, publicly pontificating under the handle TMFDitty, where he's currently ranked No. 364 out of more than 75,000 rated members.

The Motley Fool recommends Iridium Communications. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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