Only now, what was supposed to be a triumph for Musk and his Space Exploration Technologies Corp. has turned into a potential setback after the satellite went missing.
Due to the highly classified nature of the payload, however, it's unclear what exactly happened. The government agency that ordered the spacecraft has not been disclosed.
Tim Paynter, a spokesman for Northrop Corp., which was commissioned by the Defense Department to choose the launch contractor, said "we can not comment on classified missions", and army lieutenant colonel Jamie Davis, the Pentagon's spokesman for space policy, referred questions to SpaceX.
This was SpaceX's third classified mission for the US government, a lucrative customer. According to the LA Times a spokesperson for Grumman declined to provide an explanation and said, "This is a classified mission".
However, the key part connecting the Zuma payload to the rocket wasn't made by SpaceX.
Gwynne Shotwell, the chief operating officer of SpaceX, issued a strongly worded statement on Tuesday that placed the blame elsewhere.
"For clarity: 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. Information published that is contrary to this statement is categorically false.
This was just SpaceX's third national security mission and was seen as critically important in winning further lucrative business from the US Department of Defense. Falcon Heavy has been rolled out to launchpad LC-39A for a static fire later this week, to be followed shortly thereafter by its maiden flight. The company doesn't anticipate any impact on its upcoming launch schedule, including a Falcon 9 mission in three weeks.
The Falcon 9 Zuma mission finally took off, but interestingly, SpaceX's live webcast of the launch was cut off right before the rocket deployed the Zuma payload into orbit.
But Marco Caceres, senior space analyst at Teal Group, said SpaceX's cheaper launch costs and faster turnarounds for missions will still probably work in its favor with the Air Force, even if the Zuma mission were determined to be a launch failure.
Reuters/Scott AudetteThe unmanned Falcon 9 rocket launched by SpaceX lifts off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
This is not the first time a payload was lost on a SpaceX mission.
As it usually does for classified launches, Loren Grush reports forThe Verge, SpaceX censored coverage of the launch, cutting its livestream prior to nose cone separation that would reveal the payload. The company's spokesman Lon Rains said, "This is a classified mission".
The loss of a government payload comes at a bad time for SpaceX, which was founded by Elon Musk, who is CEO of both the privately-held rocket company and electric vehicle maker Tesla.
SpaceX competes for military launches with United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin Corp, which was the sole provider for the Pentagon until Musk began a campaign in Congress and the courts challenging what he called an unfair monopoly.