Pentagon Demurs on Explanation of Satellite Debacle

By Nancy A. Youssef and Andy Pasztor Features Dow Jones Newswires

The Pentagon refused to say anything at a briefing Thursday about why a classified U.S. government satellite launched by a contractor failed to reach a stable orbit and instead plummeted back into the atmosphere in what is presumed to be a total loss over the weekend.

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"I would have to refer you to SpaceX, who conducted the launch," Defense Department spokeswoman Dana White said repeatedly during a briefing with reporters at the Pentagon.

It was the first public statement by the Pentagon since Sunday's botched mission and represented an unusual stance, given that officials in the past typically have confirmed successful deployments of even secret national-security satellites.

Code-named Zuma, the satellite was launched from Florida on board a Space Exploration Technologies Corp. Falcon 9 rocket, but didn't separate as planned from the upper part of the boosters, according to industry officials. Instead, it is believed to have plummeted back into the atmosphere and ended up in the Indian Ocean.

Earlier this week, Elon Musk's SpaceX said it was not responsible for the loss of the satellite because its rocket performed exactly as planned. And Northrop Grumman Corp., which built the satellite and chose SpaceX for the mission, said its normal procedures barred commenting on classified projects.

In the wake of the event, industry and government officials focused on operation of certain hardware, called an adapter, which attached the payload to the rocket and was supposed to release it. The mechanism, according to some of these officials, was supplied by Northrop Grumman instead of SpaceX.

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Launch contracts for classified payloads, they noted, frequently are structured so that the classified customer, rather than the rocket provider, calls the shots about separation decisions.

The satellite's high price tag has sparked interest in its fate. But Ms. White did not provide any information, citing the classified nature of the launch.

Asked whether the Pentagon owed the public an explanation for what appeared to be a costly failure, Ms. White told reporters she would "come back to you on that."

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers and staffers in both the House and Senate have been briefed about the satellite. In briefings following the botched mission, lawmakers have been told the spacecraft took eight years and about $3.5 billion to develop and build, according to industry officials familiar with the details.

Despite the lack of government comment, officials from SpaceX and Northrop Grumman have a cache of video images and other information about the sequence of events during Sunday's launch. The data is believed to indicate precisely what went wrong, industry officials said, but it isn't clear why mission managers monitoring real-time video feeds weren't able to intervene.

For rapidly growing SpaceX, the failed mission came as the firm seeks to establish itself as a reliable, low-cost launch provider for the Pentagon. But the company has said it isn't making any design or operational changes to its fleet of Falcon 9 rockets.

Write to Nancy A. Youssef at Nancy.Youssef@wsj.com and Andy Pasztor at andy.pasztor@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 11, 2018 18:03 ET (23:03 GMT)