A remodeled version of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket rests on its pad. Picture: REUTERS/STEVE NESIUS
A remodeled version of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket rests on its pad. Picture: REUTERS/STEVE NESIUS

Washington — The US Air Force command that certified Elon Musk’s company SpaceX for military missions says it remains confident in the company’s capabilities, despite the disappearance this month of a classified satellite it launched.

"Based on the data available, our team did not identify any information that would change SpaceX’s Falcon 9 certification status" after "a preliminary review of telemetry that was available to us from" the January 7 launch, Lieutenant General John Thompson, commander of the Space and Missile Systems Centre, said in a statement to Bloomberg News.

While Thompson’s comments were carefully qualified — he emphasised that "the Air Force will continue to evaluate data from all launches" — they bolstered SpaceX’s position that its Falcon 9 rocket apparently "did everything correctly" in the mission code-named Zuma.

That may increase scrutiny of Northrop Grumman, which oversaw the mission and built the satellite as well as the coupling to release it from the second-stage rocket. Northrop has repeatedly declined to discuss its role in the mission. Spokesman Tim Paynter has said "we cannot comment on classified missions".

Boeing-Lockheed competition

SpaceX was certified by the Air Force in 2015 to compete for military launches against United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin. For Musk, who also heads the electric-vehicle manufacturer Tesla, it was a hard-won victory against what he portrayed as a government-blessed monopoly.

SpaceX remains eligible to compete for 11 launches until the end of the fiscal year 2019, including a looming winner-take-all contest for three Global Positioning System III missions now in source selection. SpaceX has already received two of three contracts in which it competed against United Launch Alliance.

Before the Zuma mission, which was launched for an undisclosed US agency (other than the US Air Force), Northrop Grumman spokesperson Lon Rains said the launch represented "a cost-effective approach to space access for government missions". The US "assigned Northrop Grumman the responsibility of acquiring launch services for this mission. We have procured the Falcon 9 launch service from SpaceX".

"Northrop Grumman realises this is a monumental responsibility and we have taken great care to ensure the most affordable and lowest-risk scenario for Zuma," he said at the time.

Thompson’s remarks were the first substantive public comments from the US military about the missing satellite. "I would have to refer you to SpaceX, who conducted the launch," US defence department spokesperson Dana White said repeatedly in a January 11 briefing 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 would "come back to [them] on that".

Lieutenant General Arnold Bunch, the Air Force’s top uniformed acquisition official, said in a separate interview, "I can’t say a whole lot about what all happened" but for "anything that goes forward" in terms of a formal investigation "we’ll be involved in the process" of analysing data.