SpaceX Says Its Rocket Did Not Doom Zuma Spacecraft

SpaceX insisted Jan. 9 that its Falcon 9 launch vehicle, which lifted off two days earlier with the U.S. government’s secretive Zuma payload, was not to blame for the apparent failure of the mission.

Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, said in a statement that after a “review of all data to date, Falcon 9 did everything correctly” in its Jan. 7 launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “If we or others find otherwise based on further review, we will report it immediately,” she added.

A Falcon 9 launch in January 2014. Photo: SpaceX.

A Falcon 9 launch in January 2014. Photo: SpaceX.

Congressional aides have been told that the Zuma mission was unsuccessful. But SpaceX and Northrop Grumman [NOC], which built Zuma, both declined to discuss exactly what happened to the mysterious spacecraft, which was designed to operate in low Earth orbit.

“This is a classified mission,” Northrop Grumman said in a statement. “We cannot comment on classified missions.”

Northrop Grumman has said that it acquired Zuma’s launch service for the U.S. government, but it has not identified the specific agency or the spacecraft’s purpose.

The Air Force and the Office of the Secretary of Defense referred questions to SpaceX. The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and NASA both said that they were not involved with Zuma.

Shotwell said SpaceX plans to proceed with key tests of its new Falcon Heavy rocket, which is based on the Falcon 9.

“Since the data reviewed so far indicates that no design, operational or other changes are needed, we do not anticipate any impact on the upcoming launch schedule,” she said. At Kennedy, Falcon Heavy will undergo a static fire test on its launch pad “later this week,” and its first flight will follow “shortly thereafter.”

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s strategic forces panel, declined to comment on Zuma but said in a statement that “space is a risky business” and that he remains “committed to providing rigorous oversight that accounts for that risk.”

In other launch news, United Launch Alliance (ULA) said that strong winds could delay the Jan. 10 liftoff of an NRO satellite (NROL-47) on a Delta 4 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The latest forecast “shows a 40 percent chance of favorable weather conditions for launch,” ULA said.


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