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Falcon 9 Zuma launch
A SpaceX Falcon 9 lifts off from Cape Canaveral January 7 carrying the classified Zuma payload. The outcome of the mission, and responsibility for anything that might have gone wrong, is shrouded in mystery. (credit: SpaceX)

The mystery of Zuma

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First things first: it may be years—if ever—before we get a definitive, official answer regarding what happened on the night of Sunday, January 7, when a SpaceX Falcon 9 lifted off from Cape Canaveral carrying a payload known only as “Zuma.” That, of course, won’t stop the speculation, and trading of rumors, but those should be weighted accordingly.

“For clarity: after review of all data to date, Falcon 9 did everything correctly on Sunday night,” Shotwell said. “Information published that is contrary to this statement is categorically false.”

What we do know is that, at 8:00 pm EST that evening, the Falcon 9 lifted off from Space Launch Complex 40. That launch was originally scheduled for mid-November but postponed because, SpaceX said, of issues found in testing of a payload fairing for another customer. Whatever those concerns were, they were resolved, and the launch took place after a few days of delays because of what SpaceX said were weather issues.

The launch itself appeared to go as planned. Because of the classified nature of the payload, SpaceX cut away from the ascent around the time of payload fairing separation—common practice for other launches of classified payloads by SpaceX and United Launch Alliance—to cover the landing of the first stage, which touched down at the center of its landing pad back at Cape Canaveral, several kilometers to the south of SLC-40.

SpaceX ended its coverage of the launch then with no further updates about the launch, although those covering the launch at the press site reported that the company later handed out mission patches, something it has traditionally done only after a successful launch. The mission was already receding in the rearview mirrors of many who were now looking ahead to the upcoming static fire test of the Falcon Heavy, planned for later that week in advance of its first launch by the end of the month.

However, there had been no formal statement from SpaceX or Northrop Grumman, the prime contractor for Zuma, confirming a successful launch. By later the next day, January 8, there were rumors that something had gone wrong: the payload was in the wrong orbit, or not in orbit at all. Rumors focused on the possibility that the payload failed to separate from the Falcon 9’s upper stage, and deorbited with it within a few hours of launch.

None of the companies involved have been willing to volunteer much information. SpaceX said January 8 that all the telemetry it had indicated that the rocket performed as expected. Northrop Grumman declined to comment, citing the classified nature of the mission. And the Defense Department was also not talking; no agency, in the DOD or elsewhere, had stepped forward as the ultimate customer of Zuma.

Despite—or perhaps because of—this lack of information, initial coverage put the blame on SpaceX: after all, if a satellite fails to make it into orbit, it must be the rocket’s problem, right? “U.S. Spy Satellite Believed Lost After SpaceX Mission Fails” read a Wall Street Journal headline, one of several that cast blame on SpaceX for what it called a “botched mission.”

Early January 9, SpaceX fired back, with a strongly-worded statement from company president Gwynne Shotwell. “For clarity: after review of all data to date, Falcon 9 did everything correctly on Sunday night. If we or others find otherwise based on further review, we will report it immediately,” she said. “Information published that is contrary to this statement is categorically false,” a comment that appeared to address the Journal and other articles assigning blame to SpaceX.

Shotwell’s statement added that due “to the classified nature of the payload, no further comment is possible.” The company has, indeed, refrained from saying more about the launch. Asked about Zuma at a conference in Houston Janaury 11, Shotwell said, “You know I can’t talk about that. It’s not my story to tell.”

“I would have to refer you to SpaceX, who… conducted the launch,” Pentagon spokesperson Dana White said.

Whose story it is to tell, presumably, is someone in the national security space community, but no one there is talking on the record. At a briefing January 11 at the Pentagon, chief spokesperson Dana White and Joint Staff Director Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. were asked about Zuma. They punted the question… back to SpaceX.

“I would have to refer you to SpaceX, who… conducted the launch,” White said. When the reporter persisted, McKenzie stepped in. “I’m done. We’re not going to be able to give you any more information.”

With that lack of official word, the rumor mill continues to churn. One congressman, Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA), who said he was briefed about the Zuma mission, speculated that it would come down to a dispute—potentially a lawsuit—between Northrop Grumman and SpaceX. “Those two companies are going to have a long and, I suspect, very expensive discussion,” he told the Washington Post.

Without further comment from the companies and agencies involved, one has to look at the actions the companies are taking. In the case of SpaceX, the company is proceeding as if its rocket did perform as planned. The day after the Zuma launch, it rolled its first Falcon Heavy back to the pad to continue preparations for its first launch. While the static fire test hasn’t taken place—it’s now scheduled for no earlier than the afternoon of January 16—SpaceX has performed at least one “wet dress rehearsal,” fueling the giant rocket and going through steps in the countdown leading up to, but stopping short of, ignition of the 27 engines in its three booster cores.

Later last week, satellite operator SES announced that GovSat-1, a satellite it built in partnership with the government of Luxembourg for launch on a Falcon 9, had arrived at Cape Canaveral. “It is scheduled for launch at the end of this month on board a SpaceX flight-proven Falcon 9 rocket,” the company said in its January 11 statement, indicating that it had no reason to think that its launch would be delayed by the Zuma incident. Had there been any reason to believe the Falcon 9 was the cause of any Zuma failure, it’s likely SpaceX wouldn’t be pressing ahead with its next launch—and SES, or most any other customer, would insist on a delay.

SpaceX also has the support of one its biggest customers, Iridium. SpaceX launched 40 of Iridium’s 75 satellites on four Falcon 9 launches last year. Iridium was satisfied enough with the vehicle’s performance that it conducted its most recent launch, just before Christmas, using a previously-flown first stage after previously stating it planned to use new first stages for all of its missions.

In a series of tweets January 11, Iridium CEO Matt Desch reacted angrily to an article that called the Zuma mission a “SpaceX Failure.” “Tom, this is a typical industry smear job on the ‘upstart’ trying to disrupt the launch industry,” he said in a tweet directed at the article’s author. “SpaceX didn't have a failure, Northrup [sic] Grumman did. Notice that no one in the media is interested in that story. SpaceX will pay the price as the one some will try to bring low.”

Desch later said he didn’t know for certain that the failure was the fault of Northrop Grumman, but attributed that conclusion to the “process of elimination.” “I believe SpaceX statements, and have my own beliefs about what probably happened. Just find it sloppy and lazy to blame SpaceX when others more likely at fault (but won’t/can’t talk).”

“Tom, this is a typical industry smear job on the ‘upstart’ trying to disrupt the launch industry,” Desch tweeted. “SpaceX didn't have a failure, Northrup [sic] Grumman did.”

The speculation that Zuma failed to separate from the payload fairing focused attention on the payload adapter used for the mission. Last fall, during preparations for the initial launch attempt, Northrop Grumman said that it was providing the payload adapter as well as the payload. If that failed, that could explain SpaceX’s statements that the vehicle performed as planned and why it was moving ahead with upcoming launches. (It would not, though, necessarily exonerate SpaceX from blame for a failure, such as if the company erred in some way in the installation or operation of the payload adapter, for example.)

Last week wasn’t the best week for SpaceX, regardless of whether or not it was responsible for failing to place Zuma into orbit. On January 11, NASA released updated schedules for test flights for commercial crew missions. SpaceX, which previously planned to fly an uncrewed test flight of its Crew Dragon (aka Dragon 2) in April of this year, had delayed that mission to August. A crewed test flight, carrying two NASA astronauts, also slipped from August to December. Boeing kept its current schedule of an uncrewed test flight in August and a crewed test flight in November, although company officials previously suggested that crewed flight could slip to early 2019.

SpaceX did not disclose a specific reason for the delay. “SpaceX continues to target 2018 for the first demonstration missions with and without crew under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program,” a company spokesperson said. “In 2017, significant progress was made towards the production, qualification and launch of Crew Dragon—one of the safest and most advanced human spaceflight systems ever built—and we are set to meet the additional milestones needed to launch our demonstration missions this year.”

Later the same day, NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) released its annual report on safety issues associated with the agency’s programs. It devoted a section of the report on specific concerns with the use of composite overwrapped pressure vessels (COPVs) that store helium within the Falcon 9’s propellant tanks, flaws in which were blamed for the explosion that destroyed a Falcon 9 during preparations for a static fire test in September 2016.

SpaceX changed its propellant loading procedures in response to the failure, and has had 18 successful launches since then (19 counting the Zuma launch.) The company also worked with NASA to redesign the COPVs for additional safety on crewed launches. However, ASAP wants NASA to do more testing to ensure it understands how the pressure vessels operate when immersed in the supercooled liquid oxygen used by the Falcon 9. “In our opinion, adequate understanding of the COPV behavior in cryogenic oxygen is an absolutely essential precursor to potential certification for human space flight,” ASAP stated, italicizing that sentence in the report for emphasis.

ASAP had reservations about commercial crew safety at both Boeing and SpaceX, expressing skepticism the companies would meet mandated “loss of crew” (LOC) safety levels despite statements by NASA officials in recent months that indicated the agency thought the companies would meet those levels, or come close enough to be able to get a waiver.

“The Panel has been monitoring the providers’ progress in working toward the LOC requirements, and it appears that neither provider will achieve 1 in 500 for ascent/entry and will be challenged to meet the overall mission requirement of 1 in 200 (without operational mitigations),” ASAP concluded in its report.

“But let’s be honest. None of us really knows at this stage,” cautioned one account.

The commercial crew delays, and lingering safety concerns on the part of ASAP, have little direct connection to the launch of Zuma. But some will no doubt try to link them. That may be seen this Wednesday, January 17, when the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee holds a hearing on the commercial crew program. Both the SpaceX and NASA representatives at the hearing will likely be asked about Zuma and how it might affect commercial crew plans.

But as the debate about the apparent loss of Zuma continues, there’s another question: just what was Zuma anyway? Speculation has focused on some kind of experimental radar imaging satellite, along the lines of USA 193—another mission that failed after reaching orbit—based on sources in the intelligence community and the orbit the spacecraft was being launched into. “But let’s be honest. None of us really knows at this stage,” cautioned one account.

And, for what it’s worth, the National Reconnaissance Office, which operates other radar imaging satellites, appears to be distancing itself from Zuma. After the launch Friday of a classified payload on a ULA Delta IV, a launch designed NROL-47 and also thought to be a radar imaging satellite, NRO tweeted that the launch was “the first of two planned NRO launches for 2018.” In other words, it wasn’t counting Zuma as an NRO mission. And so the mystery continues.