SpaceX Reiterates Falcon 9 Performed as Planned for Zuma Launch

SpaceX Reiterates Falcon 9 Performed as Planned for Zuma Launch

At a hearing today on NASA’s commercial crew program, committee members could not resist asking SpaceX’s representative about the super secret Zuma mission that apparently failed earlier this month.  SpaceX’s Hans Koenigsmann reiterated that the Falcon 9 performed as planned and took issue with statements made in a recent Loren Thompson commentary critical of SpaceX.

SpaceX is one of two companies developing systems to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) through a public-private partnership with NASA — the commercial crew program.  The hearing today was an opportunity for the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee to get an update on the program.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon will launch atop a Falcon 9 rocket, which SpaceX already uses for government and commercial launches.

On January 7, 2018, a Falcon 9 launched a highly classified government satellite named Zuma.  All that is publicly known about Zuma is that it was built by Northrop Grumman.  Who it was built for, and what it was designed to do, is classified.

Zuma’s fate is also classified.

The leading theory is that it reached orbit, but did not separate from the Falcon 9 second stage and was destroyed when the second stage automatically deorbited shortly thereafter.  SpaceX built Falcon 9, but Northrop Grumman provided the payload adapter that connects the satellite to the rocket.  Because everything is classified, what exactly happened and who is to blame remains unknown on the public stage at least.

The only connection between Zuma and today’s hearing is the Falcon 9 rocket and the fact that Northrop Grumman also builds satellites for NASA, including the $8.7 billion James Webb Space Telescope scheduled for launch next year.

On that basis, subcommittee chair Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX) used today’s hearing to ask Koenigsmann and NASA about Zuma.

The day after the Zuma failure, SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell issued a stern statement that Falcon 9 “did everything correctly.”

Hans Koenigsmann, vice president, Build and Reliability, SpaceX, testifying at January 17, 2018 House Science, Space, and Technology Committee hearing. Screengrab.

Koenigsmann echoed that today: “Falcon performed as specified and it actually performed very well as specified.” He added that SpaceX is continuing with its launches as planned, another indication that it is confident the rocket was not to blame.

Stressing that Falcon 9’s performance is crucial to NASA’s human spaceflight program, Babin asked Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, what NASA knows about Zuma.  Gerstenmaier said NASA does not have any details, but has been informed by others that if there is a mishap investigation NASA will be involved as appropriate.

Later, Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL), read extensively from Loren Thompson’s January 15 commentary in Forbes that intimated that the Falcon 9 was, indeed, at fault, and even if it was the Northrop Grumman payload adapter, SpaceX nonetheless is responsible because it was the launch provider.  He also criticized SpaceX for other failures.  Thompson is a frequent critic of SpaceX.  His own critics note that his Lexington Institute is funded by companies including Boeing and Lockheed Martin, SpaceX’s competitors in the launch services business.

Koenigsmann replied that the article “needs to be adjusted for accuracy.”  He responded in turn to each criticism read by Brooks.  Regarding Zuma, he repeated again that “Falcon 9 did everything Falcon 9 was supposed to do” and that is all he can say since the mission is classified.


Note:  In an earlier version of this article, the word “not” was inadvertently omitted from the phase “Gerstenmaier said NASA does not have any details” about Zuma. 

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