WASHINGTON — When a big-ticket military weapon development or procurement goes off the rails for any reason, the Pentagon as a rule does not deflect media questions to the contractor that the government hired to do the work.
So reporters at the Pentagon were shocked on Thursday when the Defense Department’s top spokesperson Dana White not only refused to comment on the apparent failure of a secret military space mission codenamed Zuma, but also told a journalist to direct his questions to SpaceX.
“I would have to refer you to SpaceX, who conducted the launch,” White told Bloomberg News reporter Tony Capaccio at a Pentagon briefing.
Capaccio repeatedly challenged White to explain why she would not answer questions. “This is a billion-dollar satellite. It’s been four days. Was it a success or a failure? And what’s the fate of the satellite?’ he asked.
Regardless of the sensitivity of a mission, the Pentagon would be expected to disclose some level of information such as whether an investigation is under way. And if in fact a billion-dollar payload was lost, even in a classified project, the government would have an obligation to account for a major taxpayer-funded loss.
White insisted that the “classified nature of all of this” made it impossible for her to respond to any queries.
Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, director of operations for the Joint Staff, standing on the podium next to White, shut down the questioning. “I’m done. We’re not going to be able to give you any more information,” McKenzie shot back.
It is notable that White would refer questions to SpaceX, the launch provider. Northrop Grumman Corp, which supplied the payload and its adapter, has also refused to comment. SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell issued a statement Tuesday saying the Falcon 9’s part of the mission went off as planned. “After review of all the data to data, Falcon 9 did everything correctly on Sunday night,” she said. And she noted that any reports that the rocket failed are “categorically false.”
Preparations for SpaceX’s upcoming launches remain unchanged, which suggests the company doesn’t have concerns about its rocket’s performance Sunday. The Wall Street Journal, citing unnamed industry and government officials, reported on Monday that the payload was “presumed to be a total loss after it failed to reach orbit.”
White saying “go ask SpaceX” and SpaceX insisting the launch was successful only deepen the mystery.
Sources contacted by SpaceNews suggested that the Pentagon might be rightfully shutting down questions if it turns out that the Defense Department or the National Reconnaissance Office were not the customers for this mission. And was Zuma a satellite? Even that is not certain. Conceivably it could have been a spaceplane or some experimental vehicle launched by a defense contractor or maybe even the CIA. According to one source, the CIA would be expected to rely on the NRO for space missions “but from what I’ve heard has been known to do its own thing on occasion,” the source said. “My guess is that this was an experimental rather than operational payload. If it were operational, it would have been flown by ULA.”