How the SpaceX Zuma Launch Happened

Here's how the top secret mission for the U.S. government went down.


The government’s Zuma spy satellite that was launched into space on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket has been lost, according to several reports.

The original story is below.

Fourth time’s a charm: SpaceX’s secret “Zuma” mission finally got underway Sunday night as Elon Musk’s aerospace company completed its first mission of 2018.

Zuma is a Northrop Grumman Corporation-made spacecraft, and it was sent into low-Earth orbit, but that’s all SpaceX or the defense contractor has released about the mission, calling Zuma “restricted payload.” Zuma is the third classified mission SpaceX has performed for the U.S. government. (The first was to launch a spy satellite in May and the second was to launch the X-37B spy plane in September.)

A little after 8 p.m. Sunday, precisely as many Americans might have been sitting down to watch the Golden Globes, this rocket was taking off in Florida:

Northrop Grumman has a long history making technology for the military and NASA. It has also made the B-2 stealth bomber, the Global Hawk surveillance drone, and the James Webb Space Telescope, which is undergoing testing ahead of its launch into space in 2019.

Zuma's inside this payload fairing, seen here in the pre-launch webcast.


The Falcon 9 launched from the SLC-40 launchpad in Cape Canaveral, Florida, after being moved from its original launch site, Launchpad 39A, which is currently booked with the SpaceX Falcon Heavy, the rocket system that will test launch in late January. The first stage of the rocket separated from the second and headed back to Earth, while the second stage continued on to put the Zuma payload into orbit. The SpaceX webcast cut out video for this part of the mission.

A few minutes later the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket booster landed safely at LZ-1 near Cape Canaveral, as can be seen in this video from a camera mounted on the rocket:

“And the Falcon has landed,” said Brian Mahlstedt, a SpaceX software engineer who was hosting the Zuma webcast.

The rocket landing was the 21st by SpaceX. The first was on December 21, 2015, also at LZ-1. In addition to LZ-1, SpaceX has landed first-stage boosters on the drone ships Of Course I Still Love You, in the Atlantic Ocean, and Just Read the Instructions, in the Pacific Ocean.

The Zuma mission was first scheduled to launch on November 15 and experienced subsequent delays that led to the launch on Sunday.

With additional reporting by Nick Lucchesi.

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