A Successful Launch…Or Was It?

4:17 minutes

rocket launch at night
The SpaceX “Zuma” mission launched on January 7th, 2018 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Photo by SpaceX/flickr/Public domain

Last Sunday, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket bearing a classified payload, code-named “Zuma.” The launch was performed by SpaceX for Northrop Grumman on behalf of the U.S. government—but the nature of the payload was kept secret. The launch appeared to go as planned, and the company successfully recovered the rocket’s first stage, landing it vertically at Cape Canaveral. However, later came reports that the payload had failed to reach orbit and was presumed destroyed.

[Let’s spend some time exploring the ethics of experimentation in Frankenstein.]

SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell said in a statement that “after review of all data to date, Falcon 9 did everything correctly on Sunday night” and that “the data reviewed so far indicates that no design, operational or other changes are needed.” The government has declined to comment on the launch.

Loren Grush, science writer at The Verge, joins Ira to talk about the mysterious launch and upcoming prospects for private space flight.

Segment Guests

Loren Grush

Loren Grush is a space reporter at Bloomberg News. She’s based in Austin, Texas.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: Now it’s time to play– good thing, bad thing.

Because every story has a flip side. Now last Sunday, SpaceX had another launch of its Falcon rockets. It was a beautiful evening launch, maybe you saw the pictures. And the launch seemed to go according to plan with the company successfully recovering the first stage of the rocket back at Cape Canaveral.

But there’s a catch. Joining me now is Loren Grush, science writer at The Verge. She joins me by phone, welcome back.


IRA FLATOW: Tell us– tell us about this. What’s the good thing about this mystery?

LOREN GRUSH: Well from what SpaceX is telling us and from what we have seen of the launch, I mean, it all went according to plan. They say that the Falcon 9 performed nominally, which in engineer speak means great. And yeah, like you said, the first stage landed, marking their 21st landing, I believe. So outwardly, all seemed to go well.

IRA FLATOW: And so what’s the bad news then?

LOREN GRUSH: So Zuma was always weird to begin with, we didn’t really know much about it. So when SpaceX launched it, we didn’t really see it deploy in orbit because it’s a classified mission and we’re not allowed to know where it’s going.

So then rumors started circulating on Sunday and Monday that maybe that the satellite that they had launched had either failed or had fallen back to Earth and had burned up in the atmosphere. And so then everybody was kind of scrambling to figure out what exactly happened.

IRA FLATOW: Right. So when you ask then SpaceX, what do they say?

LOREN GRUSH: So SpaceX is adamant that everything went according to plan. So a lot of people are asking questions– OK, so how could have it failed, because when SpaceX says that its rockets worked well, that typically means A, it launched; B, it got the satellite to orbit; and C, it deployed the satellite into orbit.

But then we started to learn some details. Over at Wired, they reported that actually, the apparatus that is used to deploy the satellite into orbit wasn’t actually made by SpaceX, it was made by Northrop Grumman, who manufactured the Zuma satellite.

So if that thing, that apparatus called the payload adapter failed, then the satellite might not have gone into the orbit, it would have stayed attached to the rocket. And then technically, it would not have been SpaceX’s fault, it would have been Northrop Grumman’s fault.

But I want to couch all this by saying, no one really knows. That’s just a working theory at this point because it’s a classified mission, we really can’t say for sure and no one’s really speaking up.

IRA FLATOW: So Northrop Grumman isn’t saying anything either?

No No, they’re saying that it’s classified. And then I believe during a Pentagon briefing, the other day, someone asked, you know, what’s up with Zuma? And then they said, oh, you’ve got to talk to SpaceX, but SpaceX is saying, oh no, we did everything fine. You know, gotta talk to whoever the government agency is, but we don’t know which government agency they flew it for, so it’s kind of hard to know for sure.

IRA FLATOW: Now one thing we do know is that the SpaceX stage came back to Earth and landed well.

LOREN GRUSH: Yeah. And if we are looking at SpaceX’s activity, they are behaving as if nothing is wrong. You know, they posted beautiful pictures of the launch and they rolled out their new Falcon Heavy vehicle–

IRA FLATOW: Tell us about that. Yeah, telling us what we’re waiting for on that.

LOREN GRUSH: So later this month they’re going to launch their new Falcon Heavy, which is the heavy lift version of the Falcon 9. But first they need to do a static fire, which is basically to make sure that all the engines are working properly. They go through all the propellant loading.

And I believe the latest news on that is they’re going to try again for tomorrow evening. I don’t believe SpaceX will be livestreaming, but a few space reporter friends of mine will be, so if you check on Twitter, you might get a glimpse of it online that way .

IRA FLATOW: That’s great! That’s the new world. Loren Grush, science writer with The Verge Thank you for taking time to be with us today and good luck.

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