from the rocketing-to-the-future dept.
[Updated: 2018-01-23 @ 00:58 UTC --martyb]
A more recent article at Ars Technica notes SpaceX gets good news from the Air Force on the Zuma mission:
A little more than two weeks have passed since the apparent loss of the highly classified Zuma mission. Since then, SpaceX has publicly and privately stated that its Falcon 9 rocket performed nominally throughout the flight—with both its first and second stages firing as anticipated.
Now, the US Air Force seems to be backing the rocket company up. "Based on the data available, our team did not identify any information that would change SpaceX's Falcon 9 certification status," Lieutenant General John Thompson, commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center, told Bloomberg News. This qualified conclusion came after a preliminary review of data from the Zuma launch. That's according to Thompson, who said the Air Force will continue to review data from all launches.
[Original story follows]
Ars Technica has described how "far-right" critics of SpaceX (such as The Federalist) have attacked the company following the apparent failure to deploy a secretive "Zuma" spy satellite payload for the U.S. government. Northrop Grumman could be responsible for the failure of the payload to separate from the Falcon 9's second stage, but nobody will confirm that officially. During a recent hearing about commercial spaceflight, one Congressman brought up the claims of a Forbes hit piece written by the COO of an institute backed by the United Launch Alliance (ULA):
Now, at least one of the post-Zuma criticisms can be linked to SpaceX's competitors in the launch industry: Boeing and Lockheed Martin, the parent companies of United Launch Alliance. A recent opinion article in Forbes raised like-minded concerns about SpaceX's reliability under the rubric of "doubts." This was authored by Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of The Lexington Institute, which derives revenue from contributions by Lockheed, Boeing, and other major defense companies.
Thompson's article appeared to be coordinated with a hearing on commercial spaceflight this week in the US House. While most representatives asked good, probing questions about delays in the commercial crew program—the effort by Boeing and SpaceX to build spacecraft to carry astronauts to the International Space Station—Congressman Mo Brooks was an exception.
Brooks represents the northern tier of Alabama, including the Decatur region where United Launch Alliance builds its rockets. During the hearing, Brooks said, "I'm going to read from an article that was published earlier this week, entitled 'Doubts about SpaceX reliability persist as astronaut missions approach;' it was in Forbes magazine." Brooks, who has received about $70,000 in donations from Lockheed and Boeing during his congressional career, then went on to read critical parts of the piece into the record.
[...] If SpaceX truly did no wrong, which seems likely, full exoneration for Zuma will probably only come through one of two ways. The payload adapter's manufacturer, Northrop Grumman, could admit to a fault. (The company has so far not commented). Alternatively, the US government could announce the cause of the failure. (So far, the Pentagon will not even acknowledge there was a failure of Zuma). Neither seems likely in the near term, if ever.
The uncertainty after Zuma, therefore, has offered fertile ground for SpaceX's critics to reemerge after the company's success in 2017. In the meantime, its commercial satellite customers seem content.
NextBigFuture recently defended SpaceX against The Federalist's claim that SpaceX wastes taxpayer money. (Spoiler Alert: It is actually the United Launch Alliance and the Space Launch System that waste taxpayer money.)
[Update: The launch of the secret payload was reportedly a success. The Stage 1 booster returned to the LZ-1 landing pad at Cape Canaveral and landed successfully. If you missed the launch, SpaceX usually posts a recorded copy a few hours after launch at the same YouTube location as the live stream.]
SpaceX's Mysterious Zuma Mission May Finally Take Flight Sunday
Originally planned for a November launch, the mysterious Zuma mission may finally go to space on Sunday evening. SpaceX has confirmed that its rocket, and the undisclosed national security payload, are ready for launch, and weather conditions appear to be generally favorable. The two-hour launch window opens at 8pm ET.
An undisclosed issue with the Falcon 9 rocket's fairing caused SpaceX to delay the launch for several weeks in November and eventually move the date forward to January 4. Earlier this week additional propellant loading tests contributed to further delays, as did "extreme weather" at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida—mostly gusty winds.
But now conditions for the mysterious mission are 80-percent go, weather-wise, in Florida. This is SpaceX's third classified mission, and arguably its most secretive flight for the US military. All that is publicly known about the Zuma payload is that it is a satellite manufactured for the US government by Northrop Grumman, and it is bound for low-Earth orbit.
SpaceX to Launch Classified Zuma Mission: 0100-0300 UTC on 8th (8:00-10:00 p.m. EST on 7th)
Later on Monday afternoon another space reporter, Peter B. de Selding, reported on Twitter that he too had been hearing about problems with the satellite. "Zuma satellite from @northropgrumman may be dead in orbit after separation from @SpaceX Falcon 9, sources say," de Selding tweeted. "Info blackout renders any conclusion - launcher issue? Satellite-only issue? — impossible to draw."
Update: SpaceX said the Falcon 9 rocket performed nominally, but unnamed sources reportedly told the Wall Street Journal that the payload did not separate from the Falcon 9 second stage and that both fell into the ocean:
An expensive, highly classified U.S. spy satellite is presumed to be a total loss after it failed to reach orbit atop a Space Exploration Technologies Corp. rocket on Sunday, according to industry and government officials. Lawmakers and congressional staffers from the Senate and the House have been briefed about the botched mission, some of the officials said. The secret payload—code-named Zuma and launched from Florida on board a Falcon 9 rocket—is believed to have plummeted back into the atmosphere, they said, because it didn't separate as planned from the upper part of the rocket.
The WSJ report has been disputed. Space-Track has catalogued the Zuma payload as USA 280, international designation 2018-001A, catalog number 43098, but that doesn't necessarily mean Zuma survived. CelesTrak lists the status as operational (search 43098 in NORAD Catalog Number field).
If the mission did fail, SpaceX could also blame Northrup Grumman for using their own payload adapter.
The United Launch Alliance's CEO Tory Bruno has been making his case for the upcoming Vulcan rocket and Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage. The system could compete against SpaceX's Falcon Heavy and BFR in the mid-2020s:
The maiden flight of the Vulcan currently is targeted for the middle of 2020. Two successful commercial launches are required as part of the government certification process, followed by a required upper stage upgrade to improve performance, either moving from two to four Centaur RL10 engines or using a different set of engines altogether. If all goes well, ULA will introduce its new upper stage in 2024, the Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage, or ACES, that Bruno says will revolutionize spaceflight. "This is on the scale of inventing the airplane," Bruno told reporters during the media roundtable. "That's how revolutionary this upper stage is. It's 1900, and I'm inventing the airplane. People don't even know what they're going to do with it yet. But I'm confident it's going to create a large economy in space that doesn't exist today. No one is working on anything like this."
The Vulcan will stand 228 feet tall with a first stage powered by two engines provided by either Blue Origin, a company owned by Amazon-founder Jeff Bezos, or Aerojet Rocketdyne. Blue Origin's BE-4 engine burns methane and liquid oxygen while Aerojet Rocketdyne's AR-1 powerplant burns a more traditional mixture of oxygen and highly refined kerosene.
[...] ULA plans to begin engine recovery operations after the Vulcan is routinely flying and after the ACES upper stage is implemented. Bruno said the engines represent two-thirds of the cost of the stage and getting them back every time, with no impact on mission performance, will pay big dividends. SpaceX, in contrast, must use propellant to fly its Falcon 9 stages back to touchdown. Heavy payloads bound for high orbits require most if not all of the rocket's propellant and in those cases, recovery may not be possible. As a result, SpaceX's ability to recover rocket stages depends on its manifest and the orbital demands of those payloads.
"Simplistically, if you recover the old booster propulsively then you can do that part of the time, you get all the value back some of the time," Bruno said. "Or, you can recover just the engine, which is our concept, and then you get only part of the value back, about two thirds ... but you get to do it every single time because there's no performance hit. So it really turns into math."
Related: SpaceX's Reusable Rockets Could End EU's Arianespace, and Other News
Boeing CEO Says His Company Will Carry Humans to Mars Before SpaceX
Zuma Failure Emboldens SpaceX's ULA-Backed Critics; Gets Support from US Air Force [Updated]
SpaceX to Launch Five Times in April, Test BFR by 2019
Northrop Grumman, rather than SpaceX, is reportedly responsible for the loss of a secret satellite (reportedly) worth $3.5 billion:
In early January, SpaceX adamantly denied rumors that it had botched the launch of a classified spy satellite called Zuma, and now, a new government probe has absolved the company of blame for the spacecraft's loss. Government investigators looking into the mission determined that a structure on top of the rocket, called the payload adapter, failed to deploy the satellite into orbit, The Wall Street Journal reports. That adapter was built by defense contractor Northrop Grumman, which means SpaceX isn't at fault for Zuma's demise.
This scenario aligns with what many speculated at the time. SpaceX launched Zuma on top of its Falcon 9 rocket on January 7th, and just a day later, reports started to surface that the satellite had fallen back to Earth and burned up in the atmosphere after the mission. However, SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell claimed that the rocket performed as it was supposed to. "For clarity: after review of all data to date, Falcon 9 did everything correctly on Sunday night," she said in a statement. "If we or others find otherwise based on further review, we will report it immediately. Information published that is contrary to this statement is categorically false."
[...] Meanwhile, the payload adapter failure isn't a good look for Northrop Grumman, which is having a difficult time piecing together another important spacecraft right now: NASA's James Webb Space Telescope. Northrop is the main contractor of the telescope and is currently integrating large pieces of the spacecraft at the company's facilities in Redondo Beach, California. However, NASA recently announced that James Webb's launch will have to be delayed until 2020, due to a number of mistakes and delays that were made at Northrop during the construction process.
SpaceX should demand to use its own payload adapters for any new classified/national security launches, because it will probably be granted in light of this "Beltway bandit" fiasco.
Previously: SpaceX's Mysterious Zuma Mission May Soon Take Flight
Rumors Swirl Around the Fate of the Secret "Zuma" Satellite Launched by SpaceX
Zuma Failure Emboldens SpaceX's ULA-Backed Critics; Gets Support from US Air Force [Updated]