Pentagon Sticks to No Comment on Secret Satellite That Vanished

(Bloomberg) —
The launch of the Falcon 9 rocket at Cape Canaveral, Fla., for the “Zuma” U.S. satellite mission, Sunday. (SpaceX via AP)

The Pentagon refused any public comment on a secret U.S. government satellite that apparently crashed into the sea after it was launched by Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp.

“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.”

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket seemed to lift off successfully from the pad at Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Sunday carrying a classified payload in a mission code-named Zuma, but the satellite has gone missing. Lawmakers are receiving classified briefings on the lost satellite.

“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, Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, a former astronaut and the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transport Committee, said Wednesday before being briefed.

SpaceX and Boeing Co. are partners in NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which aims to revive human spaceflights launched from Nelson’s state.

“After review of all data to date, Falcon 9 did everything correctly,” SpaceX Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell said in a statement Tuesday. If that’s confirmed by Defense Department investigators, it leaves open possibilities such as a failure in the coupling that was supposed to release the satellite from the rocket.

Tim Paynter, a spokesman for Northrop Grumman, which manufactured the satellite and chose SpaceX for the mission, declined to comment on the coupling, saying “we cannot comment on classified missions.”

SpaceX is saying “‘everything performed as expected, it’s not our fault,”‘ Marco Caceres, senior analyst and director of space studies with the Teal Group, said in an interview. “The onus is on the Air Force or Grumman to prove otherwise,” he said.

Caceres predicted SpaceX will probably proceed “with business as usual and try to keep with their very aggressive launch schedule.”

Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama, who heads the House Armed Services Strategic Forces subcommittee, said in a statement Wednesday that “space is a risky business” but his panel remains “committed to providing rigorous oversight that accounts for that risk and ensures that we can meet all of our national security space requirements as the Air Force looks to competitively procure space launch services in the future.”

Congressional inquiries into the satellite failure may revive debate about SpaceX’s rivalry for military contracts with United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin Corp.

Rep. 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.”

United Launch Alliance was the sole provider for the Pentagon until Musk began a campaign in Congress and the courts challenging what he called an unfair monopoly. After an extensive Air Force review, SpaceX was certified in 2015 to compete for military launches.

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