US Air Force Backs SpaceX 'No Fault' Claim Regarding Zuma Spy Satellite Destruction

space x zuma
SpaceX was sent into defense mode last week after the Zuma spy satellite, which blasted off from Cape Canaveral aboard a Falcon 9 rocket, failed to achieve orbit. The satellite reportedly tumbled back to earth, breaking apart during re-entry. However, the U.S. Air Force this week is giving a vote of confidence to SpaceX, seemingly backing up the company's claims of not being at fault.

Lieutenant General John Thompson, commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center, providing the following statement to Bloomberg. “Based on the data available, our team did not identify any information that would change SpaceX’s Falcon 9 certification status” following a “preliminary review of telemetry that was available to us” during the launch, which took place on the January 7th.

While the remarks point to preliminary findings by the Air Force, it's still a sigh of relief for SpaceX, which has had a string of successes this year and a record number of launches. Prior to the statement from the Air Force, SpaceX's many critics seized on the Zuma failure to say "A-ha! We told you that they couldn’t be trust for government missions, let alone human space flight.”

SpaceX defenders pointed to statements made by the company that its telemetry data showed that the Falcon 9 performed as expected, and that it had no part in the satellite's untimely end. SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell issued the following statement last week regarding the mishap:

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.

Reading between the lines, what SpaceX is referencing is the fact that it was only responsible for the first and second stage boosters during the mission -- namely the Falcon 9 that did the heavy lifting getting the satellite off the launchpad and into space. Northrop Grumman, however, built the actual Zuma satellite and was responsible for the coupling that ejects the satellite from the second stage. So, all eyes are now on Northrop Grumman for answers, yet the company has simply responded with "we cannot comment on classified missions."

With the "all clear" practically being signaled by the Air Force -- and the government shutdown now behind it -- SpaceX is now focused on static engine tests for Falcon Heavy and its debut flight.