SpaceX is dealt blow as secret military satellite goes missing

A still image from video shows the launch of SpaceX's secretive US government payload known as Zuma.
A still image from video shows the launch of SpaceX's secretive US government payload known as Zuma.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - A military satellite launched by Elon Musk's Space Exploration Technologies appears to have crashed into the sea after a malfunction while being boosted into orbit, a potential setback for the billionaire's rocket programme.

SpaceX's Falcon 9 appeared to lift off successfully from the pad at Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Sunday carrying a classified payload. But afterwards, the US Strategic Command said it wasn't tracking any new satellites, an indication that the satellite somehow failed to deploy properly.

"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," SpaceX chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell said in an emailed statement.

"Due to the classified nature of the payload, no further comment is possible."

Even without clarity on what went wrong, the botched mission - code-named Zuma - represents a turnabout for Musk, who was coming off a record year of launches and rounds of fundraising that rendered his closely held company one of the most valuable startups in the world.

Compromising relationships with the military would carry significant consequences: Defence contract launches were estimated to be valued at about US$70 billion (S$90 billion )through 2030 in a 2014 government report.

The second-stage booster section of the Falcon 9 failed, said a US official and two congressional aides familiar with the launch, who asked not to be named because the matter is private. The satellite was lost, one of the aides said, and the other said both the satellite and second-stage rocket fell into the ocean.

It's possible that the Zuma satellite failed to separate properly, meaning the fault may not have been with the launch system, according to discussions on SpaceX's Twitter feed. Commentary during a webcast of the launch appeared to confirm that the fairings housing the payload were successfully deployed.

Tim Paynter, a spokesman for Northrop Grumman Corp., which was commissioned by the Defence Department to choose the launch contractor, said "we cannot comment on classified missions."

Army Lieutenant-Colonel Jamie Davis, the Pentagon spokesman for space policy, referred questions to SpaceX.


The launch was SpaceX's first in what is due to be a busy year. The company has said it plans about 30 missions in 2018 after completing a record 18 last year. The takeoff had been pushed back several times since late 2017, with the past week's extreme weather on the East Coast contributing to the latest delay.

The Zuma mission was a success on at least one count: SpaceX successfully landed the rocket's first stage for reuse in a future launch, a key step in its goal to drive down the cost of access to space.

SpaceX's 23-minute webcast of the event Sunday evening included the Falcon 9 launch and the rocket's first-stage recovery on land in Florida. Cheers from employees could be heard from Mission Control at the company's headquarters in Hawthorne, California.

The webcast then concluded. During launches for commercial satellite customers, SpaceX typically returns to the webcast to confirm that the payload has separated from the second stage, but Zuma was a classified mission so the lack of further messages wasn't surprising.

Falcon Heavy SpaceX, the closely held company founded and led by Musk - who also heads the electric-vehicle manufacturer Tesla - is slated to demonstrate the maiden flight of Falcon Heavy, a larger and more powerful rocket, later this month.

SpaceX, along with Boeing, also has a contract with Nasa to fly astronauts to the International Space Station as part of the "Commercial Crew" programme, with the first crucial test flight scheduled for the second quarter.

SpaceX competes for military launches with United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, which 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 a rigorous Air Force review, SpaceX was certified in 2015 to compete for military launches.