WASHINGTON — Days after a secret U.S. government satellite apparently failed following its launch aboard a SpaceX rocket, one U.S. lawmaker is calling for an independent investigation into what happened.
SpaceX has adamantly claimed its rocket performed as expected. But on Thursday, a Pentagon spokesperson declined to discuss what happened to the Zuma satellite and instead referred questions to the launch company.
Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., a member of the House Strategic Forces Subcommittee, is among several lawmakers who say they expect classified briefings on the reported failure of the Zuma satellite and its mission.
“I clearly want to raise it, and I clearly want a third-party investigation to see what happened,” said Coffman. SpaceX “had problems before this where payloads were destroyed at significant taxpayer expense and I think we need to find out why.”
In 2015, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying cargo to the International Space Station for NASA exploded.
SpaceX is a politically charged topic at the Capitol, where some lawmakers’ interests align with the upstart aerospace company and others align with United Launch Alliance.
ULA is a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing that had long held a lucrative monopoly on national security launches until 2015 when the Air Force certified SpaceX to compete for these contracts.
Coffman, who made similar calls after a SpaceX mishap on a commercial mission in 2016, represents a congressional district that is home to ULA’s headquarters.
Alabama Republican Sen. Richard Shelby, a senior appropriator whose state is home to ULA’s rocket factory in Decatur, also expressed concerns about SpaceX to reporters Wednesday.
“SpaceX has had its share of mishaps — too many,” Shelby said. “You generally learn from your mistakes, knock on wood. United Launch [Alliance] has an outstanding record; We’re talking about national security stuff too.”
Asked whether the latest imbroglio should raise concerns about SpaceX’s participation in NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, Shelby said, “You have to look at their record.”
“They’ve got promise, but at the same time, they’ve had a lot of mishaps,” Shelby said. “It’d bother me if I were the vendor.”
SpaceX and Boeing are partners in NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which aims to revive human spaceflights from Florida.
Sen. Bill Nelson, a former astronaut and the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transport Committee, told Bloomberg there is no reason thus far to question SpaceX’s participation in such projects.
Leading members from the House and Senate’s intelligence committees, including Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., also declined to comment.
Alabama Republican Rep. Mike Rogers, who chairs the House Strategic Forces Subcommittee, said he wants to learn whether the cause of the failure was the launch vehicle or another factor. Northrop Grumman built the satellite for the mission.
“I want competition,” he said. “I don’t want SpaceX to go away, I want Blue Origin to get more involved with ULA. That’s healthy for us.”
Blue Origin is an American privately funded aerospace manufacturer and spaceflight services company set up by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos.
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.