On Wednesday, during a Pentagon briefing, spokeswoman Dana White was asked whether the US Department of Defense considered the Zuma mission — a valuable, top-secret US government cargo — a success or a failure. White declined to comment substantive, saying, “I should refer you to SpaceX, who led the launch.”
Unfortunately, SpaceX isn’t talking about Zuma’s success (or otherwise). The company has twice stated that its rocket, both the first and second stages, performed nominally during its Sunday night launch. However, SpaceX does not say that the Zuma payload was successfully launched into orbit.
Thursday, a day after the Pentagon said the news media should ask SpaceX about the mission’s success, the company’s president and chief operating officer, Gwynne Shotwell, appeared at a meeting of scientists and engineers in Houston called The Academy of Medicine, Engineering & Science of Texas. Dutifully asked about Zuma, Shotwell replied, “You know I can’t talk about that. It’s not my story to tell.”
After Ars initially reported the suspected loss of the Zuma cargo on Monday afternoon, other publications reported similar news. However, there is no official confirmation of the success or loss of SpaceX, the US government (which paid for Zuma), or Northrop Grumman, who built the satellite, spacecraft, or whatever Zuma was built.
Sources familiar with closed-door discussions have told Ars that there are two primary working theories about what went wrong with Zuma and caused it to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere. One idea, contrary to SpaceX’s official statements, is that the rocket’s top stage underperformed and caused the problem. At this point, however, it seems more likely that the mechanism built by Northrop Grumman to release the satellite was not working properly.
If the Pentagon doesn’t answer the question about Zuma’s fate, it could be a while before the matter is clear. Ultimately, information should leak from secret briefings on Capitol Hill. Still, this is unlikely to be an “official” confirmation. Such an information vacuum provides a fertile ground for rumors and speculation.
There are already rumors that Zuma was a satellite intended to monitor or intercept North Korea’s nuclear activities and that the story of its failure is a subterfuge. For the record, Ars would not knowingly report a lie, and we continue to have reliable sources indicating that the Zuma payload did indeed fail to reach orbit.