SpaceX and customers defend Falcon 9 performance after Zuma mission4 min read

WASHINGTON — SpaceX reiterated at a congressional hearing Jan. 17 that its Falcon 9 rocket performed as expected on its most recent launch, despite swirling questions about the potential failure of the classified Zuma mission.

SpaceX, though, now has the support of the customer for its next commercial launch, who said it was “confident” that SpaceX would be ready for the late January mission.

In a tweet Jan. 17, SES said it reviewed data from the Jan. 7 Falcon 9 launch of Zuma and concluded that the vehicle had performed as expected, clearing the way for the launch of GovSat-1, a joint venture of SES and the government of Luxembourg, on another Falcon 9 currently scheduled for Jan. 30.

“Following Zuma mission, our engineering staff have reviewed all relevant launch vehicle flight data following last Falcon-9 launcher mission,” the company tweeted. “We are confident on SpaceX readiness & set for Govsat-1 launch late Jan!”

The comment by SES came several hours after a SpaceX executive defended the vehicle’s performance in response to questions by members of the House space subcommittee during a hearing on NASA’s commercial crew program, for which SpaceX is one of two companies developing vehicles.

Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), chairman of the subcommittee, raised the issue of the status of the Zuma mission in the first question after opening statements. Babin noted he was restricted in what could be discussed during a public, unclassified hearing, “but circumstances surrounding this mission do have a direct impact on NASA and this committee’s jurisdiction and oversight responsibilities.”

“Falcon 9 performed as specified. It actually performed very well,” said Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of build and flight reliability at SpaceX. “We’re picking up the launches by the end of the month, as we planned.”

Asked by Babin if SpaceX could provide a classified briefing about the mission, Koenigsmann said that he would have to “go through the proper channels and follow the protocol” for doing so.

Bill Gersternmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said he did not know details about the Zuma launch. “But we’ve been informed by others that, if there’s any mishap investigation or any other activities that are involved, we will be appropriately involved,” he said.

“If this is declared a mishap and we understand it is a mishap, NASA will be informed and we will have appropriate personnel participate in those mishap activities,” he added, language that indicated NASA had not been informed that the launch was considered a failure.

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Later in the hearing, the subcommittee’s vice chair, Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), read portions of a commentary published on the website of Forbes magazine Jan. 15 by Loren Thompson, a consultant who is chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute. In that commentary, Thompson raised doubts about the reliability of the Falcon 9 because of the rumored loss of the Zuma payload, along with two Falcon 9 failures in a June 2015 launch and a September 2016 static-fire test.

Asked to comment on the essay, Koenigsmann again stated that the Falcon 9 performed as expected on the Zuma launch. “I can’t, unfortunately, present any details,” he said. “I can only reiterate that Falcon 9 did everything Falcon 9 was supposed to do.”

Actions by Falcon 9 customers appear to support the assessment that the launch went according to plan. In addition to the SES statement, Space Systems Loral announced Jan. 16 that it had shipped the Hispasat 30W-6 spacecraft, which it built for satellite operator Hispasat, to Cape Canaveral for launch on a Falcon 9. That launch is expected in mid-February.

SES announced Jan. 11 that GovSat-1, built by Orbital ATK, had arrived at Cape Canaveral for its upcoming launch. Industry officials say it’s unlikely the operators would agree to ship the satellites to the launch site if they believed that their upcoming launches were in danger of being delayed because of any investigation into the Zuma mission.

Other customers have stood behind SpaceX. In a series of tweets Jan. 11, Matt Desch, chief executive of Iridium, said he believed that SpaceX was not responsible for any failure of the Zuma mission, and criticized media coverage of the launch. SpaceX has successfully launched 40 of Iridium’s next-generation satellites on four Falcon 9 missions, with four more launches scheduled for 2018 to launch the remaining 35.

“I believe SpaceX statements, and have my own beliefs about what probably happened,” he wrote in one tweet. “Just find it sloppy and lazy to blame SpaceX when others more likely at fault (but won’t/can’t talk).”

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Sebastien Clarke

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