SpaceX lands first U.S. military launch contracts

* Solar observatory, test satellite to fly on Falcon rockets

* Flights seen as stepping-stone for more military missions

SAN FRANCISCO, Dec 5 (Reuters) - Startup rocket company Space Exploration Technologies, which flies NASA cargo to the International Space Station, has landed its first launch contracts for the U.S. military, the company said on Wednesday.

The U.S. Air Force will pay $97 million for a Falcon 9 rocket to launch in 2014 the Deep Space Climate Observatory, a solar telescope that will be operated by NASA. It will also pay $165 million for a Falcon Heavy rocket for the military’s Space Test Program-2 satellite, which is expected to fly in 2015.

Both spacecraft will be launched from Space Exploration Technologies’ Cape Canaveral, Florida, site.

The company, also known as SpaceX, has been pursuing U.S. military launch business for years, hoping to break the monopoly held by United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

“SpaceX deeply appreciates and is honored by the vote of confidence shown by the Air Force in our Falcon launch vehicles,” SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk said in a statement.

In addition to a 12-flight, $1.6 billion space station cargo delivery contract with NASA, SpaceX has a backlog of about 20 commercial and non-U.S. government satellites and payloads to fly on its Falcon family of rockets over the next five years.

The privately owned company plans to begin using a second launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California in 2013.

SpaceX also is one of three companies hired by NASA to design a spaceship that can fly astronauts to the station, a $100 billion research laboratory that flies about 250 miles (400 km) above Earth.

SpaceX’s Air Force contracts are part of a four-year, $900 million program that also includes Orbital Sciences Corp and Lockheed Martin, which is offering a new Athena rocket outside the United Launch Alliance partnership.