Probes Point to Northrop Grumman Errors in January Spy-Satellite Failure
Government and industry experts have tentatively concluded that engineering and testing errors by
caused a U.S. spy satellite to plummet into the ocean shortly after a January launch, according to people familiar with the details.
Initial indications were that the satellite, believed to cost as much as $3.5 billion to develop and known by the code name Zuma, didn’t separate in time from the spent second stage of a Space Exploration Technologies Corp. rocket. But now, these people said, two separate teams of federal and industry investigators have pinpointed reasons for the high-profile loss to problems with a Northrop-modified part—called a payload adapter—that failed to operate properly in space.
Specifics of the Zuma adapter still aren’t known, and Northrop Grumman spokesmen didn’t respond to requests for comment over the weekend. The Pentagon has repeatedly declined to comment on Zuma’s fate, and on Friday the Pentagon’s missile defense agency didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.
The device, purchased from a subcontractor, was significantly modified and then successfully tested three times on the ground by Northrop Grumman, according to one person familiar with the process. But upon reaching orbit, this person said, the adapter didn’t uncouple the satellite from the rocket in zero-gravity conditions.
Sensors on board failed to immediately report what happened, this person said, so officials tracking the launch weren’t aware of the major malfunction until the satellite was dragged back into the atmosphere by the returning second stage. The satellite ultimately broke free but by then had dropped to an altitude that was too low for a rescue.
Northrop Grumman built the satellite, which was so highly classified that its purpose still hasn’t been disclosed. Likewise, no particular agency has been publicly identified as the customer. Industry officials and military-space analysts have said it likely was an advanced type of space radar or missile-warning satellite.
Investigators have focused on the satellite’s unique design, which was particularly vulnerable to shock and vibration, according to people familiar with its characteristics. That prompted Northrop Grumman to specially modify the adapter to cushion separation of the satellite in orbit, according to one of these people. Adapters typically use explosive bolts or other powerful systems to break satellites free of their attachments to rockets.
Shortly after the failed mission, leaders of several congressional committees and their top staffers were briefed about the bungled launch. They were told the satellite was a total loss and no salvage attempts were anticipated, according to industry officials informed about the sessions. The satellite is believed to have splashed down in the Indian Ocean.
SpaceX, as the rocket provider is commonly called, moved quickly to defend its Falcon 9 booster, saying it performed exactly as expected. Other industry officials backed up the company. SpaceX’s initial public statements reassuring customers about the rocket’s performance were made without the explicit approval of U.S. intelligence officials, according to people familiar with the sequence of events.
But since then, defense officials have publicly and privately signaled the rocket wasn’t at fault.
Northrop Grumman’s troubles also have shined the spotlight on the extent of congressional review of classified space programs. Championed by a handful of lawmakers including
Sen. Dianne Feinstein
of California, the former Democratic chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Zuma was funded outside of normal channels. According to industry officials, it also received less formal congressional oversight than typical national-security satellite projects.
It isn’t clear when, or even if, a summary of the Zuma findings will be released. But the investigations are wrapping up while Northrop Grumman’s management is reeling from a series of embarrassing design and production snafus affecting the space telescope the company is building for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Two weeks ago, NASA disclosed that production and testing slip-ups forced another delay in development of the James Webb Space Telescope.In blunt language, the agency blamed some of the factory setbacks, including damage to satellite thrusters and a sun shield, on “avoidable errors” by prime contractor Northrop Grumman.
NASA officials also laid out an unusually stringent oversight plan, mandating personnel changes and twice monthly updates by senior Northrop Grumman management to agency headquarters. Northrop Grumman has revamped production procedures for James Webb and other projects, from stepped-up quality control checks to enhanced training in an effort to lock in tighter testing requirements and prevent employee burnout.
Write to Andy Pasztor at email@example.com
Appeared in the April 9, 2018, print edition as ‘Northrop Faulted in Crash of Spy Satellite.’
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