What Happened to SpaceX’s Zuma Mission? Was It Ever For Real?

The Zuma mission was always mysterious. Now, there’s reason to wonder if it was ever even real.

SpaceX announced on October 16 its mission to launch a secret government satellite built by Northrop-Grumman. It was scheduled to launch within 30 days of the announcement. Keeping a mission secret until the last month before launch was unprecedented for SpaceX, even for previous secret government satellite launches, which had been listed on its launch manifest for years.

Just before Zuma was ready to launch, SpaceX announced that the launch was cancelled via twitter: Standing down on Zuma mission to take a closer look at data from recent fairing testing for another customer.

Subsequently, the Zuma mission was removed from the famous NASA Pad 39a, and returned to the SpaceX garage. SpaceX resumed construction work on Pad 39a to remove the  huge rotating Space Shuttle enclosure and to ready the pad for the three-booster Falcon 9 Heavy demonstration launch. This indicated that there would be no Zuma launch soon. No new launch date has been announced.

So, if we are to take SpaceX’s tweet at face value, SpaceX has suffered a serious failure during testing of its fairing, the “nose cone” of the rocket used to shield a satellite from the atmosphere during launch, which has delayed the Zuma mission until the failure can be understood and corrected.

The next expected SpaceX launch, a cargo launch to ISS expected to fly from Pad 39a on December 4, won’t use the fairing, which is only for satellite launches. Cargo launches to ISS use the Dragon space vehicle. So, this mission would not be delayed.

Since there’s an Iridium satellite launch using the fairing scheduled for December 22 at Vandenberg, we’ll see in a month or so if the fairing problem is so large that it delays further launches. Changes in the fairing could be visible in the launch video, expect space aficionados to pour over that video frame-by-frame.

But there’s another possibility: That the Zuma mission was never real.

Why would SpaceX bring a rocket to the pad on a short schedule only to never launch it? Perhaps the actual mission was to see if SpaceX could put together a launch on a short-enough schedule to satisfy strategic requirements of the government. In tense times a satellite might have to be launched on a short schedule in order to view a country we want a really good look at with special instruments: say, North Korea. Or a failed military satellite might have to be replaced with a standby unit in a big hurry.

If the Zuma mission actually was a test of SpaceX’s ability to launch on a short schedule, they probably passed the test. They put a rocket with what might have been a mock-up satellite on the pad on a short public schedule and test-fired it. We have no idea, of course, of how long SpaceX actually knew about this mission.

And of course the government could have other reasons to delay a spy satellite launch, which we’d never hear of.

SpaceX still has the functioning rocket to satisfy another mission, so if Zuma was never meant to happen, the government might not have had to pay as much as they would for an actual launch. Government launches and launch simulations are still significantly more expensive than civilian ones, due to the vastly increased administrative requirements when working for the government: tests, paperwork, accounting, etc. that a civilian launch customer would not require.

SpaceX fans obsessively track the serial numbers of boosters (seen near the tail fin on the first stage) from the SpaceX factory in California to its test site in Texas to launch in Florida or California. They might catch on if the Zuma booster is eventually used for another mission. Or SpaceX could repaint the serial number to confuse them.

We should know more soon. Perhaps Zuma will launch.