Military needs to come clean on Zuma

A potential lapse in funding occupies most of collective Washington’s thoughts. But a lingering space mystery is top-of-mind for the Defense Department. And now it’s a concern for NASA.

Like Charlie on the MTA, the fate of the classified “Zuma” satellite is still unknown. It launched January 7th atop a SpaceX commercial rocket. Northrop Grumman built the satellite. Published reports say it was worth several billion dollars.

SpaceX has insisted its rocket worked “nominally.” That means correctly. If anyone knows what happened, they’re not telling.

The government is using companies like SpaceX and others as matters of both policy and necessity. Current space doctrine is to encourage development of the commercial space industry. But there’s really no other choice at the moment. Well, Russia, but who wants that as a long term solution? When the space shuttle program ended, so did NASA’s capability to put things in low earth orbit or reach the International Space Station.

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NASA is working on rockets it believes will eventually get people high enough to continue on to Mars. In truth, NASA and military launch systems have always been combinations of government design/build and commercial. What’s new is paying a contractor for use of a system of its, the contractor’s, own design and construction.

The SpaceX machine has a good, but not perfect, record in nearly 50 launches. What’s acceptable risk in space operations would scare the hell out of most mortals. But space is different.

Now members of Congress are slightly alarmed. In a hearing of the House subcommittee on space, members had the Zuma incident on their minds when questioning NASA officials. The topic was NASA’s planned test of competing systems to put people into low earth orbit. The subcommittee’s purpose was to explore the slipping schedule and safety questions surrounding the NASA program.

One competitor is SpaceX. It’ll use its Falcon9 and a crew module of its own design. Competitor Boeing will use its capsule design atop an Atlas V operated by United Launch Alliance, a consortium of Boeing and Lockheed.

Because of the mystery surrounding the final minutes of the Zuma satellite, subcommittee members wondered: What if a crewed capsule had been there instead of a satellite. A critical moment in a launch occurs when the payload separates from the rocket and goes its own way. This is where something seems to have gone wrong with Zuma. A Wired story last year stated that Northrop Grumman supplied its own “payload adapter” rather than use SpaceX’s. It’s unknown whether that was a factor.

At the hearing, Patricia Sanders, the chair of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, said NASA would only allow astronauts atop a Falcon9 once it had seven successful launches in a row. The number seven has statistical significance. SpaceX has in fact been able to manage seven successful launches in a row.

Then came Zuma. The Pentagon is mum. Northrop Grumman is mum. SpaceX says only that its rocket worked. NASA may know but is probably sworn to secrecy. Perhaps certain members of Congress know. So why can’t the parties to this mystery come clean with what went wrong, short of detailing the nature and mission of the satellite itself?

The country has a long history of space and space-related disasters. Sometimes thing have gone horribly wrong right on the launch pad. But always the incidents have been followed by detailed and public investigations. If you want to know what happened when a training fire killed three Apollo 1 astronauts in 1967, the information is out there. (It was the most mundane maintenance thing you can think of, a tiny section of worn wire.)

Maybe they haven’t figure out what happened to Zuma or how it happened. Still, in this day, when the complex of contractors is even more deeply intertwined with NASA and military launches, transparency should be the default position.