House of Representatives pressed both SpaceX and NASA officials on the outcome of the secret Zuma mission that launched a spacecraft into orbit this month on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
The Subcommittee Hearing
While representatives from SpaceX including the president and chief operating officer – Gwynne Shotwell – insisted that the rocket functioned as intended during the classified Zuma mission, media rumors have suggested that the mission failed to actually put the payload in orbit. These rumors supposedly came from information from U.S. officials who had been briefed on the success of the Zuma mission that launched on January 7 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
Despite the insistence from Shotwell and other SpaceX officials, Space.com reports that House lawmakers such as Representative Brian Babin (R-Texas), the chairman of the House Space Subcommittee, were quick to bring the Zuma mission to the forefront during a hearing on the progress of commercial program that was working with NASA – asking both NASA and SpaceX about what they had to say about the supposed failure.
“Recent press reports indicated that a U.S. government mission named Zuma may have either failed in orbit or the launch could have been unsuccessful…I do not want to discuss anything classified in an open session, [but] the circumstances surrounding this mission do have a direct impact on NASA and this committee’s jurisdiction and oversight responsibilities.”
While SpaceX is a private company, the fact that they’re working directly with NASA makes a lot of their business of interest to organizations like the Space Subcommittee. As government funds are being funneled into companies like Boeing and SpaceX to better enable to facilitation of space travel for American astronauts, lawmakers have a vested interest in making sure launches like the Zuma mission go off without a hitch. The Falcon 9 rocket used for the Zuma mission was also built with considerable funding from NASA, and the contractor that built Zuma is currently developing the James Webb Space Telescope.
The Success of the Zuma mission
During the committee hearing, Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of build and flight reliability at SpaceX, spoke out about the Zuma mission and its success.
“I want to point out, on the Zuma mission, that we relayed the information that Falcon 9 … performed very well as specified, and that we are picking up the launches by the end of the month as we planned all the time…Regarding a briefing, we will go through the proper channels, and follow the protocol — as you pointed out, we can’t talk any details in this particular setting.”
Representative Mo Brooks (R-Alaska), the vice president of the subcommittee, then turned the attention to previous failings of SpaceX such as the launchpad explosion back in 2016 and the fact that a rocket broke apart just 2 minutes after launching cargo to the International Space Station in 2015.
Koenigsmann reiterated his previous statement, saying “I can’t, unfortunately, present any details; I can only reiterate that Falcon 9 did everything Falcon 9 was supposed to do.”
As the mission is classified, there’s a possibility that the news won’t be revealed regarding the outcome of the Zuma mission for quite some time. It’s safe to say, however, that the Space Subcommittee is anxious regarding media reports from the likes of Ars Technica that questioned the success of the secret Zuma mission. This type of crossover between the government space agency and private space companies has only happened in recent years, and SpaceX may have to get used to increased probing as lawmakers ensure the government investment is used correctly.