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Black hole? What happened to this multi-billion-dollar spy satellite?

by Ben Popken, David Freeman and Denise Chow /
Image: The launch of the Falcon 9 rocket at Cape Canaveral
The launch of the Falcon 9 rocket at Cape Canaveral, Florida for the "Zuma" U.S. satellite mission. Responding to media reports that the satellite was lost, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell says the rocket "did everything correctly" and suggestions otherwise are "categorically false."SpaceX / via AP

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The loss of a classified, multi-billion-dollar government spy satellite is fast becoming a public black eye for private space transport and a whodunit mystery for industry watchers.

SpaceX said its Falcon 9 rocket, launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, performed flawlessly. Northrop Grumman, the aerospace contractor that hired SpaceX to sling its "Zuma" satellite into orbit, says it's "classified." A government official says the mission is a "write-off."

In a statement Tuesday morning, SpaceX president and chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwel said, "After review of all data to date, Falcon 9 did everything correctly on Sunday night."

"If we or others find otherwise based on further review, we will report it immediately," she said. "Information published that is contrary to this statement is categorically false."

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Northrop Grumman declined to comment. "This is a classified mission," a spokesperson told NBC News. "We cannot comment on classified missions."

Reuters reported that an investigation into what went wrong is underway.

Ultimately, though, the manufacturer of the satellite assumes responsibility, industry experts say.

"It's standard that the satellite provider is required to insure it. It falls more on Northrop," Jim Cantrell, an early SpaceX employee who is now the CEO of Vector, a micro satellite launch startup, told NBC News.

The satellite launched Jan. 7 on the back of a rocket launched by SpaceX, the private space exploration company formed by entrepreneur Elon Musk. Government and industry officials have said that the payload failed to separate from the second stage of the rocket and plunged back into the atmosphere.

The failure comes at a sensitive time for SpaceX, which has recently been trying to establish itself as a low-cost launcher for Pentagon missions. Both SpaceX and Northrop are casting blame on each other, Ars Technica reported, citing a source familiar with discussions on Capitol Hill.

“There’s no reason to think that anyone has been dealt a body blow because of the loss of one mission,” Peter de Selding, editor of Space Intel Report, told NBC News. In all likelihood, he said, the satellite’s manufacturer will be fully paid for its work even if it’s to blame for the satellite’s apparent loss. If it turns out that a glitch with SpaceX’s rocket is responsible for the apparent loss, SpaceX’s busy launch schedule for 2018 could face disruption — with possible loss of revenues.

SpaceX said the Zuma mission’s apparent failure wouldn’t affect the company’s upcoming launches, including a much-anticipated inaugural demonstration flight of the massive new Falcon Heavy rocket later this month.

“Since the data reviewed so far indicates that no design, operational or other changes are needed, we do not anticipate any impact on the upcoming launch schedule,” Shotwell said in the statement.

The high-profile error is an embarrassment for the effort. But SpaceX is so cheap relative to its competitors that the scrubbing is unlikely to derail the relationship.

"When it's hundreds of millions of dollars versus something that's $60,000 to $90,000, it's hard to justify the taxpayer dollars," said Cantrell.

If anything, the solution is to send up more rockets, more frequently. And that means following the SpaceX model.

"The reason why air travel is so reliable is because we fly thousands of airliners every day," Robert Zubrin, rocket scientist and founder of the nonprofit Mars Society, told NBC News in an email.

"Right now, the average rate of spaceflight is about 1 launch every 4 days. Back when airplanes flew at that frequency, they crashed all the time. If we want to make space travel as safe as air travel, we need to make it much cheaper."

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