Zuma Blame Game Begins

In the wake of the apparently unsuccessful launch of the secret Zuma payload, there is still some confusion about what exactly happened and who is to blame.

The top secret satellite for an unidentified government agency is believed to have burned up in the Earth’s atmosphere after failing to separate from the second stage of a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster.

However, SpaceX officials say that the Falcon 9 booster performed exactly as planned, so the company is not responsible for any failure that might have occurred.

That would appear to point the finger at Northrop Grumman, which provided the satellite and the adapter that connected it to booster. The company had declined to comment, saying it doesn’t comment on classified missions.

The Washington Post reports that the two company might be pointing fingers at each other behind the scenes.

U.S. Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), who said he received a “preliminary briefing,” had two concerns about the possible loss of the satellite.

“One is the loss of the intelligence that would have been available,” he said. “The second concern is the reliability of the delivery systems. And that issue is being debated between the contractors, SpaceX and the satellite manufacturer, Northrop.”

While he said he did not know who was to blame, he indicated that the dispute might lead to litigation. “Those two companies are going to have a long and, I suspect, very expensive discussion,” he said.

The Pentagon is not commenting on the Zuma mission, Bloomberg reports.

“I would have to refer you to SpaceX, who conducted the launch,” Defense Department spokeswoman Dana White said repeatedly in a briefing Thursday at the Pentagon, citing “the classified nature of all of this.” Asked what investigation is being conducted to ensure accountability for the loss of a costly payload, White told reporters she will “come back to you on that.”

“The first statement by SpaceX was that the failure to achieve orbit was not theirs” so there’s no reason so far to question the company’s planned participation in NASA space projects, Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, a former astronaut and the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transport Committee, said Wednesday before being briefed…

Meanwhile, SpaceX’s critics in Congress are questioning the company’s reliability.

Republican Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, who heads the panel that approves appropriations for NASA, said the lost satellite raises new questions about SpaceX contracts. Shelby is a strong supporter of United Launch Alliance, which has operations in his state.

“The record shows they have promise, but they’ve had issues as a vendor,” Shelby said Wednesday, referring to SpaceX. “United Launch, knock on wood, they’ve had an outstanding record.”

In a sign that the mission did fail, collectSpace reports that SpaceX has recalled Zuma souvenir mission patches that it had released for sale.

Since 2015, SpaceX has allowed for third-party sales of its mission patches so long as the flight that the insignia represents was confirmed a success.

SpaceX recalled the sale of the Zuma mission patches in “consideration for their customer,” a seller who goes by the handle “usafspace” on eBay posted Friday evening on the collectSPACE forums and on Reddit’s SpaceX subsection.

The patches were also noted as missing from the pegs at the souvenir shop for the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Museum Sands Space History Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, where they had been available for $7 each earlier in the week.

  • Eric Thiel

    I don’t want to put my tinfoil hat on, but I think Zuma is still up there.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Well looks like we really will have some old fashioned “Kremlinology” style guess work to do this year. So much for the idea it was a cover story. If this is a big ruse, it must be one heck of a satellite they’re trying to get people not to look for.

  • passinglurker

    its hard to hide an object in space

  • echos of the mt’s

    But not impossible. STS-36 released something that was thought to have failed. A few months later an object was tracked and traced back to whatever had been released.

  • passinglurker

    Zuma’s nature meant all eyes were on it any object to come off that launch is being tracked

  • Kirk

    OTV-5 (NORAD ID: 42932 / International: 2017-052A / no TLEs), the X-37B launched back in the first week of September, hasn’t been located yet.

  • MzUnGu

    Not hard, They been working at this problem since the 60’s and more so in the 80’s. Hiding ICBM warheads from interceptors like Reagan’s Star Wars’ wares is not so different. Design your sat to have angle surface to bounce the radar or optical waves away from the receiver. Some kind of corner reflector as decoy if needed.

    Not an orbital mechanic guy, but fly it next to some orbital junk, or Just change orbit at locations far away from any monitoring locations(Indian Ocean?) would prob do it too.

  • Gary Border

    Whatever happened, we’d know a lot more if Northrup Grumman hadn’t required the video feed to end prior to satellite separation from the Falcon 9 2nd stage. This proves (again) that Edward Teller was correct when (~ 1980) he said we have far too much secrecy in our government.

  • OldCodger

    “it doesn’t comment on classified missions” now there is as good a cop out as you will find!
    I should think the lawyers are rubbing their hands in glee over this one.
    Presumably SpaceX have telemetry that can prove their case?

  • ThomasLMatula

    Here’s a really nasty hit piece from another Washington insider…

    https://thefederalist.com/2018/01/16/spacex-snake-oil-peddler-twenty-first-century/

    Why SpaceX Is The Snake Oil Peddler Of The Twenty-First Century

    “Beau Rothschild is the founder of Rothschild Policy and Politics. Beau
    served as the members outreach director for the Committee on House
    Administration and helped the 2014 freshmen Republican class to set up
    offices.”

    Nothing like showing the establishment up to get them to pull the knives out…

  • ThomasLMatula

    If you really want to go FULL tinfoil hat maybe it was just a boilerplate designed to fail to discredit SpaceX? After all, what evidence is there they spent billions on it? Likely they don’t even have to pay SpaceX for it. What’s a few million when billions of dollars are at stake…

  • Michael Halpern

    Yes, obviously they have the telemetry,

  • Michael Halpern

    In about a year and a half, F9 will have out launched any ULA vehicle

    ULA’s record comes at a very steep cost

  • Bob Redman

    The public feed ended, but not the internal feed. They have all the video and telemetry they need.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    For those who are interested in the subject of satellite tracking research a man by the name of Ted Molczan. I’ve used the orbital elements he’s generated since 1993 or so for tracking satellites with less than public personae. A good program to use is STS-PLUS. It’s no longer being supported but you can run it in a MS-DOS virtual machine on any modern OS. Don’t use FreeDos. DOSBox also works.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    They may not. It depends on who has a clearance and a need to know. Someone in SX probably knows but may not be able to communicate it. Listen to the radio call at @2:14 where control of the camera is released to someone. I may be completely misunderstanding what that radio call means, but it stood out to me as interesting. I don’t recall hearing it before. I’ll go back and check a few launches and the reader should too.

  • Michael Halpern

    That still means they have the telemetry. In addition if it was fault of Falcon 9, they would have a standdown, regardless of how classified the payload is, this is an enforced operating procedure the fact is there is no talk of such an action, so they already have established that it wasn’t SX’s fault. I trust the NASA spokesperson more than I trust the senator whom has a vested interest in ULA.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    SpaceX has opened an optional era of space access that is starting to deliver prompt, repetitive, high upmass, and inexpensive access to space. With safety and process being more loose parameters, and probably being so for some period of time until failures drive future improvements. If the satellite user communities want to take advantage of this capability, and are willing to pay the price. They need to and can design their satellites to be easier to replace and less expensive. For the a military that’s worried about having it’s space assets attacked, they should be doing this anyway. The commercial sector will have more soul searching to do. It’s not outrageous to ask this of the satellite communities. Commercial airlines in the US, Europe, and the Soviet bloc crashed and killed hundreds of people a year for decades from the 1930’s all the way to the 1980’s. US aircraft losses of aircraft and airmen were through the roof during the conflict in Vietnam. We’ve dealt with the inherent risk of operating high technology in the past. SpaceX offers development of a very capable launch system that needs to be upgraded over decades of time based on a maturation process predicated on flights. ULA offers a system based on very in depth analysis and tight management techniques that offers a very reliable system at the expense of very high cost. A snakeoil salesmen offers medicine that does not address the disease. SpaceX addresses the needs of access to space, but it offers a operations model that’s flight based instead of tight analysis and management.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    I thought the radio call was interesting and might point at SX not having access to data it normally would.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    Likely, video cameras of payload/sep are removed for classified missions. Even random SpaceX employees who manage that data would not be cleared into such a program.

  • Michael Halpern

    I can’t watch it right now but it’s more the announcer not having the data, the announcer just sees what is publicly streamed, and gets a prompter for first stage events when not visible, on this kind of mission the stuff directly related to the payload goes through people with clearance (SX mission control) then to the announcer.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    Much ado about nothing w.r.t to SpaceX. The steamroller will continue on, as it should.

  • Gary Border

    Good. But that’s just it … you and I and everyone else who’s commented is wasting time that could be useful elsewhere. They should release it to us and let us draw our own conclusions. What’s the point in making it SECRET?

  • Michael Halpern

    Failures aren’t that common with SX, Zuma counts as an “other” as does Asmos 6, which leaves F9 with 1 in flight failure and 1 partial failure.

    Landing failures are not counted in this unless its a dragon capsule that fails as that is a post mission operation and all were successful in getting the stage quickly out of orbit in a constrained area limiting exclusion zone

  • Michael Halpern

    Still a camera isn’t likely to tell why it failed to separate if that was the case, only that it did

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    Yes, but if the payload starts to separate and hangs up in the adapter that is clear proof the separation signal was sent and received.

  • Michael Halpern

    So is a feedback confirmation signal

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Yes, for what risk there is with SX, it’s managable. But if your culture pushes for 100% success any failure looks bad or can be made to look bad if you can convince your audience that 100% success is a reasonable expectation. NASA made two Pioneers (10 and 11), and Voyagers 1 and 2. Not because they wanted two shots at Jupiter and Saturn. Because they wanted to mitigate the risk of losing one craft in launch or cruise. The expectations back then were for losses.

  • Kenneth_Brown

    That’s not a bad bet. The spacecraft was put in the orbital catalog and that’s a bit strange if it wound up in an ocean somewhere.

    If it is still up there, the Russians will know about it as well as the Chinese. The only lie would be between the US government and its citizens.

  • Michael Halpern

    And 2 of every class of Mars rover, except the very first which was more of a demonstrator, (Curiosity’s sister is Mars 2020 and there are the twin rovers)

    The risk is minimal especially as it makes less overcomplicated satellites more practical

  • Kenneth_Brown

    I could argue that even with the customer providing the adapter, SpaceX is still liable. Why would they allow it to be used without verifying that it has been built correctly and within tolerances? There has to be somebody on the SpaceX staff that is cleared to work with the client all the way through the process.

    The government has been very evasive and hiding behind “it’s classified” for every single question asked is a cop out. I watched some of the press briefing and just got angry when they wouldn’t address anything even though the questions had nothing to do with the particulars of the satellite, it’s mission or orbital path. Maybe the Russians will send what they know and a sheaf of photos to Julian and it will get published just to embarrass the US.

    All US citizens should be angry. A billion dollars or more of taxpayer’s money just got flushed and for all we know, that satellite’s mission might have been to spy on the US. Coupled with the trillions of dollars unaccounted for that went to the military in the last bunch of years, it’s hard to be all patriotic when looking at the deductions coming out of one’s paycheck.

  • Michael Halpern

    A large part of the reason any failure looks bad is because satellites (particularly gov sats) are traditionally expensive because launches are traditionally expensive, meaning fewer flight opportunities, F9 runs on a completely different dynamic and government payloads haven’t adjusted to it yet

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    Yup, never said the *only* way.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Just so. For military reasons alone, military satellites should be broken up into smaller units that are based off a common set of parts and are mass produced ready to be replaced if fired upon, and ready to fly again in a launch failure.

  • Michael Halpern

    And they ARE pushing for that, especially as they see pricing pressure and lower launch costs to make that feasible. It just wont happen overnight and will likely take a few years optimistically

    Which is fine as currently only ONE LSP in the world is priced appropriately for that kind of set up to be actionable and we are DAMN lucky they are US based.

  • publiusr

    That scenario wouldn’t shock me at all.