Early Saturday morning Jan. 14, SpaceX successfully launched 10 communication satellites made by Iridium — one of its largest satellite customers — into low earth orbit from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The mission, part of a larger effort to replace at least 70 of Iridium’s satellites by 2018, was a much-needed positive start to what should be a busy year for SpaceX.
SpaceX has a lot to accomplish in 2017, but it’s crucial to remember that all of this is in service of the company’s ultimate goal of sending humans to Mars. That’s why each commercial launch is critical for the company Elon Musk founded 15 years ago. Not only is it proving that the technology works, but each contract is helping Musk fund his ambitious and expensive mission to colonize Mars.
Saturday’s unblemished execution — from launch, to completing the mission of deploying the satellites, to landing back on its drone ship — is a good sign for the company, particularly after one of its $60 million rockets exploded with a $200 million satellite on it last August.
About those Mars flights: During a presentation in September, Musk said he planned to begin sending unmanned rockets to Mars in 2018, and if all goes well, send rockets with humans in them to Mars by 2024. But he conceded that his contracts with NASA, Iridium and others won’t sufficiently pay for the company’s interplanetary ambitions.
Instead, it will require massive public-private partnerships, he said.
Mission looks good. Started deploying the 10 Iridium satellites. Rocket is stable on the droneship.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 14, 2017
So this year is a really important and busy one for SpaceX. Nailing each launch isn’t just important for the money, but also to ensure faith in the company’s abilities isn’t shaken, thus allowing SpaceX to potentially strike new commercial contracts.
That’s especially true now that companies like Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Moon Express — which just raised enough money to fund its maiden voyage to the moon — are becoming more aggressive about their interplanetary goals. Blue Origin, in fact, expects to launch people in its rockets by the end of 2017 and start commercial flights in 2018.
SpaceX’s 2017 goal — 20 launches — is slightly more ambitious than last year, when the company only completed eight of 18 expected launches. (And only four of those rockets successfully landed back on the drone ship, necessary if SpaceX wants to avoid replacing expensive rockets for each launch.)
SpaceX is also targeting November for a demonstration of its ability to launch a rocket to the International Space Station as part of a contract with NASA to ultimately bring astronauts to the space station.
It’s early yet, but Saturday’s launch of the Iridium 1 is a good sign for what’s to come.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.