Zuma really isn't living up to its name, is it?
Expected to launch into orbit from NASA's Kennedy Space Center on the evening of Wednesday, Nov. 15, Zuma has kept space watchers waiting for nearly three weeks to see it zoom. Instead, SpaceX -- which will be using a Falcon 9 rocket to put the reportedly Northrop Grumman (NYSE:NOC)-built Zuma satellite in orbit -- canceled the Nov. 15 launch, then canceled another launch date on Nov. 16, postponing that one to Nov. 17, only to cancel the following day as well. The company had stayed mum on its status ever since -- until this week.
According to SpaceX, the fault lies with "data from recent fairing testing for another customer," referring to the rocket's protective nose cone, which encapsulates sensitive payloads. SpaceX's testing apparently raised concerns about whether Zuma would properly deploy from its Falcon carrier after launch. After giving no reason for the canceled Nov. 15 launch, SpaceX pointed to the fairing data when it canceled again on Nov. 16 -- and then again when it gave up its launch slot Nov. 17, saying it needed more time to take "a closer look" at the data.
At last report, Zuma's launch status was still "on hold" pending the results of that "look." On Wednesday, however, SpaceX floated the possibility of an "early January" launch for Zuma:
Static fire test of Falcon 9 complete—targeting launch of CRS-13 on December 12 from Pad 40, followed by launch of Zuma from Pad 40 in early January.— SpaceX (@SpaceX) December 6, 2017
What is Zuma, exactly?
Yet while it looks like we may finally know the launch date, no one still seems to know quite what Zuma is. Well, no one outside of the government, and they're not telling. No government agency at all has yet confirmed ownership of the satellite, although the National Reconnaissance Office has disclaimed ownership. Meanwhile, multiple media outlets have speculated on the nature of Zuma, and they've all concluded that they're not 100% certain what Zuma is, or which government agency commissioned it.
What is known is that Northrop Grumman is responsible for the satellite's launch, and that if that launch ever happens, Zuma is destined to take up a low Earth orbit around the globe. We know the Federal Communications Commission OKed the launch, which tends to suggest the satellite is some kind of communications device. The FCC designated it as "Mission 1390" in October.
And we also know that Northrop Grumman contracted with SpaceX to put the Zuma satellite in orbit. Presumably, this was because SpaceX (a) is now certified by the government to launch spy satellites and (b) charges a heck of a lot less for this service than do Northrop rivals Boeing (NYSE:BA) and Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT) over at United Launch Alliance. Northrop alluded to this factor in a statement, calling the decision to use a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket "a cost effective approach to space access for government missions."
What Zuma means to SpaceX -- and to Northrop Grumman
That statement itself, though, raises some interesting questions for space investors -- and investors in Northrop Grumman in particular. From all the evidence, it appears that after surveying the prices of potential launch partners, Northrop concluded that SpaceX offered the best bang for the buck, and certainly better prices than Boeing and Lockheed Martin could offer at ULA.
At the same time, though, Northrop Grumman is itself working to develop a space launch capability. Its recent bid to acquire Orbital ATK will bring with it that latter company's ongoing project to build a Next Generation Launch rocket whose lift capabilities are comparable to those of a ULA Atlas V rocket -- or a SpaceX Falcon 9.
What remains to be seen is whether, upon creating NGL, Northrop/Orbital will be able to sell their new rocket for prices comparable to what SpaceX charges, or whether NGL's launch costs will be closer to ULA's fees -- which go as high as $350 million a launch. If the latter, then future Northrop-run launches for the government will face an interesting dilemma. Northrop can build a satellite and then launch it on someone else's (i.e., SpaceX's) cheaper rockets. Or Northrop can try to keep the launch contract in-house, and persuade the U.S. government to pay for a less "cost effective approach."
Doing everything in-house would almost certainly be Northrop's preference -- and more profitable for the company -- but risks irking Northrop's government customers. On the other hand, if Northrop goes the "cost-effective" route, it can please its customer but call into question the entire rationale behind spending $7.8 billion to buy Orbital ATK. Investors will have to wait to see which path the defense contractor chooses.