SpaceX made history this week. (But don't get excited. It does this most weeks.)

SpaceX's Falcon 9 makes a pretty picture. Source: SpaceX

Actually... on second thought, go ahead: Get excited.

Elon Musk's vehicle for the manned exploration of space made six attempts over the past two weeks to get its first satellite into orbit. The company has performed many liftoffs before, with and without cargoes on board. But attempting to launch a communications satellite into orbit on Nov. 25, SpaceX was forced to abort launch three separate times due to complications with the liquid oxygen tank and supply lines leading into the first stage booster on SpaceX's Falcon 9 launch rocket.

Two subsequent attempts to make history in an even more historic manner Nov. 28, by conducting its first satellite launch ever, on the first-ever date that Thanksgiving and the start of Hanukkah coincided, also ended in failure.

But then, finally, on Tuesday this week -- success!

Liftoff! Source: SpaceX

On December 3, 2013, at 5:41 pm local time, SpaceX's Falcon 9 achieved liftoff, carrying a communications satellite (dubbed "SES-8") built by Orbital Sciences (NYSE:OA) into super-synchronous transfer orbit for its owner, Luxembourg satellite communications firm SES, S.A. 

Tooting its own horn just a bit, SpaceX called the launch "picture-perfect" and -- glossing over the multiple scrubbed launches that preceded it -- announced that this week's launch:

  • achieved "100% of mission objectives"
  • proved that "the upgraded Falcon 9 launch vehicle delivers to the industry's highest performance standards"
  • presaged further launches of "additional SES satellites in the years to come"
  • and counted as "the second of three certification flights needed to certify the Falcon 9 to fly missions for the U.S. Air Force under the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program ... [and] to compete for all National Security Space (NSS) missions."

Foolish takeaway
From an investor's perspective, though, the real import of SpaceX's special launch is simple. For decades, the gateway to space has been controlled by a cosmic duopoly comprised of Boeing (NYSE:BA) and Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT). These two giants have been so dominant in the field that they went ahead and formalized their position, styling themselves first as the United Space Alliance, and later as the United Launch Alliance, and demanding satellite launch prices in the hundreds of millions.

This week, though, through an unlikely alliance with Orbital Sciences -- its rival in NASA resupply missions to the International Space Station -- SpaceX has moved one step closer to dethroning the space kingpins, and grabbing a big piece of the space race for itself.

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