After some 24 hours of total silence from all parties involved, dubious rumors began to trickle out on the afternoon of January 8 suggesting that SpaceX’s launch of Northrop Grumman’s highly secretive Zuma payload had somehow failed. Without hesitation, otherwise reputable outlets like CNBC and the Wall Street Journal immediately published separate articles claiming that lawmakers had been updated about the mission and told that the satellite had been destroyed while reentering Earth’s atmosphere. Having completely failed to both make it to orbit and “perfectly” separate from SpaceX’s Falcon 9 second stage, these articles implicitly placed the blame on SpaceX.
Claims of Zuma’s failure to properly separate from the second stage of the rocket led immediately to suggestions that SpaceX was at fault. The satellite’s manufacturer, Northrop Grumman, also refused to comment due to the classified nature of the mission, and the company may well have had their hands tied by requirements of secrecy from their customer(s). Immediately following these quick revelations, SpaceX was understandably bombarded with requests for comment by the media and furnished a response that further acknowledged the off-limits secrecy of the mission. However, SpaceX also stated that the company’s available data showed that Falcon 9 completed the mission without fault.
Without any background knowledge of spaceflight, this flurry of reporting and corporate comments would seem to be perfectly reasonable and unsurprising. However, the barest application of simple logic and orbital mechanics (what is actually involved in launching satellites to orbit) would have almost completely invalidated the information purportedly given to them.
Around the same time as claims of complete failure and satellite reentry were published, amateur spy satellite trackers had already begun the routine task of tracking and cataloging Zuma’s launch and orbit. Following Ars Technica’s breaking (and thankfully even-keeled) article on whispers of failure, reputable journalist Peter B. de Selding corroborated the rumors with reports that Zuma could be dead in orbit after separation from SpaceX’s upper stage. These facts alone ought to have stopped dead any speculation that Zuma had reentered while still attached to the Falcon 9 upper stage, and this was strengthened further by Dr. Marco Langbroek, who later published images provided to him that with very little doubt showed the second stage in a relatively stable orbit similar to the orbit that might be expected after a nominal launch.