Spaceflight Insider

Was secret Zuma mission lost? – UPDATE

SpaceX launched the classified Zuma mission on Jan. 7, 2018 and some sources have suggested that the payload was lost. Photo Credit: Mike Deep / SpaceFlight Insider

SpaceX launched the classified Zuma mission on Jan. 7, 2018 and some sources have suggested that the payload was lost. Photo Credit: Mike Deep / SpaceFlight Insider

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A report drafted by Ars Technica’s Eric Berger has stated that sources have suggested that the classified Zuma mission launched atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket – may have been lost. 

Berger’s report is supported by fellow aerospace journalist Peter B. de Selding who tweeted that: “Zuma satellite from may be dead in orbit after separation from Falcon 9, sources say. Info blackout renders any conclusion – launcher issue? Satellite-only issue? — impossible to draw.”

Indeed outside of the fact that the spacecraft was apparently manufactured by Northrop Grumman – little else is known about it – not even which government agency the satellite was sent aloft on behalf of. 

Various and, as yet, unconfirmed scenarios have been released by sources including one that the payload did not separate from the Falcon 9’s upper stage and fell back to Earth.

If these reports are accurate, it would make the third total loss of a payload (and one partial loss). The first (partial) payload loss occurred on the CRS-1 mission when the secondary payload of an Orbcomm satellite was placed into the wrong orbit in October of 2012 (according to a report appearing on Space News). Fast forward to June 28, 2015 and the CRS-7 Dragon spacecraft with its crew supplies, experiments and cargo bound for the International Space Station was lost during an over-pressure event (explosion) involving the Falcon 9’s second stage (as noted by the New York Times Kenneth Chang). On Sept. 1, 2016 a Falcon 9 which was sitting on the pad at SLC-40 exploded during pre-flight tests. This resulted in the loss of Spacecom’s $185 million Amos-6 satellite, the Falcon 9 rocket and parts of the launch site.

Last evening’s launch got underway at approximately 8:01 p.m. EST (01:01 GMT) on Sunday, Jan. 7. By all appearances the first portion of the flight proceeded normally with the Falcon 9 lifting off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) located in Florida. The rocket’s first stage then successfully landed back at Canaveral’s Landing Zone 1 approximately seven and a half minutes after lifting off.

SpaceX has only just recently received approval to fly U.S. national security payloads (Zuma was the third, with the first being the launch of the NROL-76 payload on May 1, 2017 and the second being the flight of a Boeing X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle on Sept. 7, 2017). The Zuma mission had encountered several delays and was originally slated to fly late last year (2017). However, an issue with another Falcon 9’s payload fairing had caused the mission to slip to 2018.

On Tuesday, Jan. 9 SpaceX released the following statement from the company’s Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell: 

“For clarity: after review of all data to date, Falcon 9 did everything correctly on Sunday night. 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. Due to the classified nature of the payload, no further comment is possible.  

“Since the data reviewed so far indicates that no design, operational or other changes are needed, we do not anticipate any impact on the upcoming launch schedule. Falcon Heavy has been rolled out to launchpad LC-39A for a static fire later this week, to be followed shortly thereafter by its maiden flight. We are also preparing for an F9 launch for SES and the Luxembourg Government from SLC-40 in three weeks.”  


When additional information is made available, SpaceFlight Insider will provide updates.




Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology,, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

Reader Comments

I think it was successful. Here are my reasons:

1) SpaceX’s statement said that “the rocket performed nominally.” A successful deployment is part of a nominal performance.

2) The second stage’s reentry burn was observed over Sudan. It is doubtful that the reentry burn would happen if the payload was somehow still attached.

3) The satellite was catalogued as being on-orbit and given the name USA-280.

4) SpaceX and Elon Musk released pictures of the launch on Twitter. They probably would not be promoting a failed launch.

5) The Falcon 9 has a success rate of ~95%, so all other events notwithstanding, there was a 95% chance that this one was successful.

Just because there was no explicit information about the success doesn’t mean it failed. It’s possible that the satellite isn’t working right, but it appears that the launch went fine. I’ll be tuning in for more information, it’ll only be 25 or 30 years before they declassify it 😉

Another possibility is, again, unsuccessful separation, but at this point it actually wouldn’t be SpaceX’s fault: the adapter for this mission was actually made by Northrop Grumman.

If there was any sort of failure, it would most likely be the satellite itself.

Changes in SpaceX’s launch manifest will confirm any sort of anomaly with their hardware.

Yep, this Falcon 9 mission is to deliver payload to orbit right? Payload adapter was from Northrop, so if something is wrong, don’t blame SpaceX, they did all things well.

Who’s blaming SpaceX? That’s the problem with fans, anytime a critical (or any) question is raised they attack, attack, and attack. The story’s title asks a question and the story itself never blames anyone. It just states what has been said and from what I see has 10 sources; including SpaceX’s COO Gwynne Shotwell. We get it, SpaceX fans are unaware of how the media is supposed to work and emotionally ill-equipped to handle any real (or in this case perceived) criticism. One of the reasons SpaceX has received such push back is due to the behavior of its fans. Name calling, lying and hurling expletives has destroyed a lot of good will the company could have had. What SpaceX fans have done is demanded an environment where only “nice” things are said about their company. That’s not how the real world works (well outside of North Korea and China).

“Name calling, lying and hurling expletives has destroyed a lot of good will the company could have had.”

More than made up for by hounding all critics into silence- which they have successfully done year after year. NewSpace has won that war and dominates public discourse and influences public opinion far beyond what anyone would believe. They long ago set the standard by shutting down one forum they could not control in this fashion on the Air n Space site (Once and Future Moon) by threatening legal action. Most of the popular space forums someone interested in space would go to are little more than SpaceX infomercials. No criticism of SpaceX is tolerated on those sites and anyone who gives back the insults and continues to criticize is eventually banned. SFI is presently the only forum I know of that actually allows “free speech”.

You get what you pay for. There is no cheap.

Gary…That’s quite the statement/accusation, especially since nobody in the KNOW is actually talking. Except for you of course.

and, NPR, Ars Technica, Reuters, The Verge, CNN, the Washington Post, Florida Today, techcrunch SpacePolicyOnline, CBS and every other credible news source on the planet. Next time you choose to be snarky, you might want to not ignore what virtually everyone is reporting. It makes you look uninformed and presents the appearance of being a SpaceX fanboy regurgitating whatever the company tells you to.

I’m so happy every time Gary comments (sarcasm)

There are those few who are not in the cult and have persisted in criticizing NewSpace over the years. The SLS is certainly the best example of the NewSpace mob being a propaganda activity. Russians interfering in our election? NOTHING compared to the libraries of negative SLS comments over the years that have flooded the internet. All because the SLS competes with the flagship company for tax dollars. I will be very happy when the SLS launches and the world gives the U.S. a standing ovation. And you will probably not.

It would be great if SLS was really the way forward but it isn’t. Maybe people are more interested in SpaceX because they are developing new technology that has the potential to finally open up space access to a wider audianice? SLS cannot and will not do that by design, it’ll cost a fortune to maintain and will probably be shuttered after only a dozen flights if even that. This is why people criticize the program, it was not conceived by engineers, it was conceived by politicians and forced down NASA’s throat. That has made it almost impossible for the rocket to be successful.

So it’s best to over charge the customer with similar results? Little early to be calling it someone fault when no one knows publicly.

I read else where, the USA-280 look like it may been still attached to the expended 2nd Stage. Hopefully they will figure out what happened to clear up the air what going on without having to lose secrets in the process.

If the Northrup-Grumman payload adapter failed–it’s on them. SpaceX “haters” aside, everything seemed to indicate a nominal launch.

How would we know one way or the other?

Anyone who accuses Eric Berger, a devout SpaceX “journalist” fanboy, of being a SpaceX “hater” is either a liar or ignorant. It never fails any and every time SpaceX encounters any actual or potential issue the apologists come out and savage anyone who criticizes the cult of Musk. Sooner or later someone is going to die on a SpaceX vehicle, get some thicker skin. If you can’t handle questions being raised go to China or North Korea.

“-someone is going to die on a SpaceX vehicle-”

I doubt anyone at NASA is going to sign off on a human riding in a Dragon loaded with several thousand pounds of hypergolic propellant. It is a poor design and will most likely be flagged and an escape tower added. Or…at least separate the propellants from the capsule like on the Starliner. We will see. After losing two shuttle crews you would think….

This was posted at 9 AM-ish California time by SpaceX’s Gwynne Shotwell, absolving the Falcon 9 of any misbehavior:

“For clarity: after review of all data to date, Falcon 9 did everything correctly on Sunday night. 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. Due to the classified nature of the payload, no further comment is possible.

“Since the data reviewed so far indicates that no design, operational or other changes are needed, we do not anticipate any impact on the upcoming launch schedule. Falcon Heavy has been rolled out to launchpad LC-39A for a static fire later this week, to be followed shortly thereafter by its maiden flight. We are also preparing for an F9 launch for SES and the Luxembourg Government from SLC-40 in three weeks.”

– looking forward to the Falcon Heavy hotfire in a few days. Ad Astra.

Why are you reposting a quote already in the article? So anything SpaceX reps tell you is to be taken at face value? So long objective thinking – HELLO Kool-Aid drinking! Hey Dewey, I work for SpaceX and have some ocean front property in Arizona – come buy it!

Actually Al, wherever any criticism is posted the standard SpaceX fan tactic is to fill up the page with distracting robo-comments. They have done it for years and it is quite probable many of them are the same person. Astroturfing for Musk as it were. The site operators here do not like replies to the incessant obfuscation. Just to let you know- it is better to let that crowd do what they do and not call them on it.

Jan. 9, 2017

Mr. Church, one of our Commenting Rules states you shouldn’t respond to every single last post made by everyone. Nowhere in that does it say you can’t respond to individuals. It just means that if there are 40 comments made on any given day – you shouldn’t reply to all 40. Please don’t misrepresent the truth. Requesting viewers not reply to every comment on every page in an effort to stifle discussion or to control it – isn’t something that should be criticized.
Jason Rhian – Editor, SpaceFlight Insider

Sorry about that. My mistake. I will review the Commenting Rules.
Again, sorry about that.

Why so caustic? Do you have evidence that Shotwell is lying? How would they possibly not have an immediate stand-down if she were not telling the truth. It would be obvious. You don’t think the NASA and USAF LSP programs would just kick back while SpaceX went on as usual after major stage malfunction? Seriously?

Because (unlike you) I haven’t forgotten Challenger, when a company white-washed what was going on and 7 people were killed. No, I don’t have evidence she’s lying, nor do you have evidence she’s being honest. Whereas you’re demanding we believe any and everything SpaceX says; I’m saying you should try to keep an objective mind. Actually? As someone in the space industry? No it wouldn’t be obvious. From my experience? People in this and virtually every industry are motivated by self interest. I want future crews who fly on this and any other rocket to come home alive. I’m caustic because I want to avoid a repeat of Challenger, or Columbia. Now, my turn to ask a question. Why are you so willing to drink the Kool Aid and to believe any and everything SpaceX tells you? Exxon, BP, Bhopal, I could go on providing you with examples of why it’s a massively bad idea to take a company’s press releases as gospel but is sounds like you’re too far gone to even consider thinking critically – or even for yourself.

I have not forgotten Challenger or Columbia or Apollo 1 or the Columbia nitrogen purge incident which took two lives in 1981.

I am not demanding you believe everything, I am not demanding anything really. I don’t hold conspiracy theories. The evidence would be obvious if F9 failed (they would have no choice to stand down). You know this it would not be able to be hidden. The schedule push to resolve whatever issue would be very very noticeable.

I don’t drink cool-aid, I prefer diet Coke, and I don’t indulge in conspiracy theories either. On face value the statement, by Shotwell, is well supported because they have gone on with planned schedule without even an extra days hitch. There is no chance the next morning FH would be rolling out of the barn if they night before they lost a mission. We know what SpaceX looks like when they lose missions (They don’t look like this). That simply isn’t how any launch provider operates if an anomaly is seen that comprised a mission, not SpaceX, Orbital or ULA.

Not sure what Cool-Aid is. It hasn’t gone unnoticed that as soon as anyone points out the issues with Zuma, SpaceX apologists such as yourself immediately label them “conspiracy theorists”. Whenever someone questions the cult of Musk your ilk tries to marginalize them. I know nothing of the sort. Many issues were kept from the public and even from mid-management during the shuttle era and on other projects. This makes your assertions to the contrary complete and utter nonsense (and more than likely intentionally so). Given the only measuring stick we have is their behavior during past failures – should be a massive red flag. The fact it doesn’t bother you says that no, you’re not drinking the Kool-Aid, you’re drowning in it. People like you caused Challenger and people like you said there was no reason to take images of Columbia on orbit during STS-107. People like you, apologists, get people killed and therefore, I’m going to be so caustic as to burn your ridiculous comments to the ground. When it comes to choosing between supporting “your” company or fighting to ensure crew safety I know which side I’m always going to be on and now we ALL know which side you’re on. What you call “conspiracy theories” honest people call critical and objective thinking. Sorry that shooting so many holes in your whitewash campaign bothers you.

Al’s right, SpaceX fans have attempted to smear articles on Ars Technica, CNN,, The Washington Post, The Verge, NPR, Reuters, CBS and virtually ever other credible media outlet. They have been given a stack of links, quotes from experts and are still trying to claim “no facts or anything to see here! Just more fake news!” I really want to like NewSpace and SpaceX but their supporters are some of the worst humanity has to offer and at some point you have to ask why that is.

Actually? I think the problem was the NG stage adapter. Having said that? There’s no substitute for honest and critical thinking, and to not ruling out a possibility simply because it involves a “popular” organization. What you deem melodrama? Honest and professional adults call objectivity. There’s so many unknowns and variables here and people like you are happy to exclude the possibility it could have been an issue with SpaceX. You won’t even consider that there could be an issue that’s SpaceX-related. You automatically excuse them and exclude that concept from consideration. I’m not “carrying on” Clio, I’m calling you an apologist and noting that you’re the type of person who gets others killed. No excuse you can vomit up will change THAT.

The problem here is that all this talk of failure is speculation upon speculation. Only SpaceX, NG and whoever paid for the satellite know what really happened if anything at all. So you can speculate all you want and say, maybe this or maybe that. But you should avoid pointing fingers at a company based on speculation alone. If the government agency that purchased this satellite steps forward and describes the loss of their satellite, then we can start viewing this as a failure. This is probably what irritates those who view SpaceX in high regards, the suggestion that this is yet another failure based purely on unsubstantiated speculation. The only real response that was offered was the SpaceX one, the others involved are keeping quiet which suggests that if anything did happen, it was on their side. The fact that the company went back to business as usual also suggests that their service went as planned.

I live about 25 miles from the SpaceX test facility in Texas. We hear regular burn tests of varying duration and intensity usually around a scheduled launch or other events. On Jan 8, it was different. In addition to some burns there was an hour or so period where it sounded more like a series of explosive thuds. Maybe someone with knowledge of this activity can explain it.

Here’s the headline from the Wall Street Journal today: “U.S. Spy Satellite Believed Lost After SpaceX Mission Fails.” It doesn’t say, “…After Northrup Grumman Mission Fails.” Get my meaning? This is all that stupid people will hear. “SpaceX Fails.” Something stinks here. Something really, really stinks.

I’m disturbed by the overall snarky and negative tone taken towards SpaceX by many of the contributors here, but that’s their right to express OPINIONS. Everything we “know” about this mission so far, is NOTHING. What bothers me most is that the press seems to be unaware that the satellite and payload adapter were manufactured by Northrup Grumman. As the previous poster stated above, the headlines all were stating SpaceX Mission fails. Why not Spacex/Northrup Grumman mission fails. I happen to be an informed SpaceX supporter, but not a sycophant. But…I’m generally a space exploration supporter, regardless of contractor involved.
I’d just appreciate a bit less negativity in commenting and reporting.

“I’d just appreciate a bit less negativity in commenting and reporting.” So you don’t want people to be honest, you want your personal feelings stroked. You don’t want journalists to do their jobs and for them to just say things that make you feel good. A journalist’s job is to report the truth, not provide SpaceX with glowing praise, irregardless of the situation. The problem isn’t with the reporters, it’s with the fans. As an engineer? I LIKE hearing the negatives, that way I can find what’s wrong and fix it. Thin-skinned folks like SpaceX fans scare me. How one handles constructive criticism says EVERYTHING about you and the way SpaceX fans behave when any criticism is raised is disturbing.

“But…I’m generally a space exploration supporter, regardless of contractor involved.”

Generally…except for the SLS. You have posted comment after comment on other sites criticizing the space agency and the SLS. Here is a sample: “Until NASA is restructured to be an advisory agency and assists the private sector, instead of burning through some $15 Billion building the SLS, the Rocket to Nowhere, we will continue going NOWHERE.”
Since “the private sector” is generally code for SpaceX, it is not hard to figure out you might not be a very authentic space exploration supporter. I would guess you are, like most of the fans, a SpaceX supporter and could care less about space.

Having blown up twice already it would not surprise me at all if SpaceX failed yet again. It smells like sycophancy and spoiled rotten fan-boyism when people are “disturbed” at “negativity” and cannot stand other OPINIONS. The NewSpace double standard is perfectly displayed here: when death-to-SLS comments damning the space agency are made they are held up as startling truths the public should take into their hearts and minds. In fact it is blatant propagandizing and marketing. What NewSpace has done for years.

If I launched a secret mission clouded in secrecy, do you know what would be even better than announcing that the payload was super successful and safely deployed?

It would be better for secrecy if we leaked vaguely to the press that the payload may have failed and may be dead. Sow doubt about its ability to even function, and it becomes even more secretive.

Sow doubt about it’s failure and use the term “super successful”?
It would be better for SpaceX if their fans posted absolutely anything that would distract the public from the failure of their 3rd military launch and the loss of a billion dollar spy satellite. Not fooling anyone.

There is no “OldSpace” cabal trying to drive SpaceX out of business. There is only a certain entrepreneur trying to take over the satellite launch industry. He is doing this under the guise of space exploration and making humankind a multi-planet species. Except he is not. He is simply trying to drive his competition in the satellite launch industry out of business. He contributed to Obama which made NASA the payback money-launderer and has played the same game with McCain and the Russian rocket engine scam in an effort to take over defense launches. This is about money and all the righteous indignation and wailing and gnashing of teeth is…about money. Anybody who thinks all these people defending SpaceX are space enthusiasts is naive. Don’t be fooled! They are promoting a company trying by way of pay-offs and subsidies to take over an industry. In my view NewSpace is the worst thing that has ever happened to space exploration. Worse than both shuttle disasters.

“Iridium is one of SpaceX’s largest commercial satellite customers, with four launches in the past 12 months from Vandenberg Air Force Base on California’s central coast and four upcoming launches listed on SpaceX’s manifest. Iridium has come to SpaceX’s defense before, saying a 2016 launchpad explosion hadn’t shaken its confidence in the startup.”
No reason for Desch to endorse SpaceX- no reason at all: completely unbiased.

SpaceX succeeds because they are better at the task of launching payloads to space. Their technology is reusable, lowering the costs and increasing the frequency. ULA is not able to compete on price, and has to resort to political tricks. That’s the only reason Sen. Shelby is calling for an enquiry – he wants the launch contract back in ULA’s hands (at 3x the cost).

Does not look like success in this case. The technology is not proven to be reusable as in being cheaper than dropping spent stages in the ocean- those numbers are not available. ULA is charging for a 100% success rate. A billion tax dollars are at the bottom of the ocean so your version of what defines success and “political tricks” is not very convincing.

As you said, those numbers are not available so you cannot be sure one way or another. For all we know it is already cheaper to land rockets rather than drop them in the ocean, or not. We will just have to wait and see. I think the smart money is on eventual reuse but we can agree to disagree. Even so, one can say that SpaceX lands these rockets on a regular basis now and that is a major milestone along the road to reusability. Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy are experimental rocket designs for reusablity. The real reusable rocket will be the BFR, assuming it is constructed and launched successfully. Then we can draw a conclusion about the effectiveness of reusability. You praise the SLS and ULA but what has ULA done recently to broaden our access to space? Yes they provide extremely expensive access to space but that’s not a step forward, more like marching on the same spot.

Even if SLS is launched, I dare you to bet that it’ll fly regularly (dozens of launches a year). Could the SLS supply a Moon base on a regular basis? Can it support a Mars colony if there ever was such a venture? I seriously doubt it considering the cost of that rocket. It’ll probably fly a few times, maybe a dozen or so, then it’ll be shuttered having cost close to 100 billion to construct and field. It’s not the fault of the engineers building it, it’s the fault of the politicians that designed this rocket. It’s design is by default intended to be expensive. In comparisson, SpaceX is the potential deal of the century.

“Could the SLS supply a Moon base on a regular basis?”

Since the SLS is essentially the Space Shuttle in a different configuration then the answer is yes. It flew for 30 years and can fly for another 30 years at six to eight launches a year. For the same cost as the Shuttle. Most of your comment is thinly disguised SpaceX advertising.

One probable series of events come to mind based on the limited amount of knowledge we have, if we take the statements at face value.
1 – SpaceX maintaining the Falcon operated as designed.
2 – the payload failed to reach orbit.
3 – Recent comments by the DOD? to ask SpaceX about the launch
4 – No real mention of NG.

This is conjecture, of course but I think it’s entirely probable that the Faclon 9 operated perfectly, however NG had trouble separating the payload, was trying to work it out, meanwhile the Falcon 2nd stage stated it’s de-orbit venting & burn.I think I’ve heard that at a certain point in time, the 2nd Stage follows pre-programmed logic and timings Tragic if NG was asking for more time, but if Space-X wasn’t able to provide it. I can see how the finger pointing would start.

Clarissa MacDougall

Yes, this is most probable given the data. The F9-S2 de-orbited on time, inside the expected box. Others can throw up baseless FUD but they can’t change the facts. Payloads can fail, sep system was NG’s responsibility, as was payload integration using NG PAF, in NG facility for security reasons. Doubtful SpaceX employees had any up-close time with this payload given the classified nature. SpaceX can be sent a stack of certification docs to provide the necessary details such as modal interactions and mass properties to plan the flight without ever seeing the payload up close.

Maybe nobody is *supposed* to know where the payload is.

Still no comments from any government agency regarding ownership of Zuma.
SpaceX continues to move forward with their launch manifest ( as others have said, can’t see this happening if there’d been any problems with their vehicle) and now a couple of their customers have publicly supported them including one stating they’d reviewed SpaceX telemetry and agreed that the F9 did everything it was supposed to do, something SpaceX Gwynn Shotwell stated publicly almost immediately and a number of people virtually accused her of lying.
I honestly can’t see how lying about you vehicle’s performance would in any way benefit a company reliant on both government and commercial business. You eventually get found out e.g.VW.
Mystery deepens and I predict it will remain that way until whatever Zuma was is declassified but who knows, maybe I’ll be surprised.

“I honestly can’t see how lying about you vehicle’s performance would in any way benefit a company-”

Then I would guess you are either incredibly naive or not being honest.

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