F9_vertical_7_2_0Today’s third attempt by SpaceX to launch a communications satellite to geosynchronous orbit is important for not just the upstart space launch company but also to the future of human spaceflight.

SpaceX is the first (and so far the only) private company to send a privately built and operated vehicle to orbit and return it safely to Earth. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon capsule also comprise the only system capable of performing this feat from American soil. The company is working to add crew-carrying capability.

SpaceX’s nearest competitor, Orbital Sciences, can also send unmanned vehicles to orbit, but, in a crucial difference, can’t return them safely to Earth, and the company has no immediate plans to make is so.

That makes SpaceX the lynchpin of America’s manned space program, at least for now, and at least as far as actually getting to and from orbit is concerned.

So far NASA has been able to fund development of commercial crew and cargo carrying capabilities. But now, at the crucial final stage of the commercial crew program, Congress has gotten stingy with funding.

Surprise, surprise. There are billions of dollars in key Congressional districts riding on the Congressionally mandated big budget boondoggle known as the Space Launch System (less affectionately known by some as the Senate Launch System.), or SLS. If a private company demonstrates the same capabilities as the SLS at a fraction of the cost, the emperor will stand revealed in all his nude glory, and it will be even harder to justify spending all those billions of dollars on a rocket that is destined to go nowhere. SpaceX is precisely on track to do that little thing.

Expect to see NASA funding for commercial crew to get ever tighter, to dry up altogether, or to go to some less capable outfit as SpaceX approaches manned launches.

All of which is to say that in order to keep its own manned space program flying, SpaceX needs a hefty revenue stream that’s independent of the US government. Hence its satellite launch business.

Today’s launch, if successful, will mark SpaceX’s debut into the big leagues of satellite launch by sending a major communications satellite into geosynchronous orbit for the second largest satellite operator in the world, SES. SES is taking a chance on SpaceX because SpaceX is charging around $60 million for a service that typically costs more like $260 million. After a successful launch, SpaceX will own the satellite launch industry, and its independent revenue stream will be more or less assured. That in turn will allow it to reach not only Earth orbit, but also push out into deep space to Mars, its ultimate destination.

Watch the launch live at 5:41pm ET today, Monday December 2, at www.spacex.com/webcast, and keep your fingers crossed.

UPDATE @ 11:41am ET on Monday: This just in from Elon Musk via Twitter:

All known rocket anomalies resolved. Will spend another day rechecking to be sure. Launch attempt tmrw eve w Wed as backup.