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Pentagon Mum on Missing Satellite

This Jan. 7, 2018 photo made available by SpaceX shows the launch of the Falcon 9 rocket at Cape Canaveral, Fla., for the "Zuma" U.S. satellite mission. (SpaceX via AP)
This Jan. 7, 2018 photo made available by SpaceX shows the launch of the Falcon 9 rocket at Cape Canaveral, Fla., for the "Zuma" U.S. satellite mission. (SpaceX via AP)

Is it missing? What went wrong? Who's to blame?

Big questions remain unanswered as officials remained tight-lipped about a billion-dollar satellite that could be somewhere in orbit -- or crashed into the sea.

To recap: Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, on Sunday launched a secret U.S. military -- or possibly intelligence -- payload, code-name Zuma, on a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

And while the launch was deemed successful, the payload -- a satellite manufactured by Northrop Grumman Corp. -- failed to reach orbit, according to unnamed officials who spoke to Bloomberg News and The Wall Street Journal.

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Despite widespread media attention on the mission, defense officials don't want to weigh in. Various spokespeople in recent days -- including during a press briefing Thursday at the Pentagon -- have repeatedly declined to discuss the mission, citing the classified nature of the program.

They also wouldn't confirm whether the launch was a success or failure, and referred questions to California-based SpaceX, headed by Elon Musk, knowing the firm has given only partial comment on what occurred.

"I'd have to refer you to SpaceX, who conducted the launch," said Dana White, the Pentagon's chief spokesperson, during a briefing with reporters Thursday.

When Bloomberg News' Tony Capaccio said that answer did not suffice, White said, "I understand, but that's the answer. Again, I would have to refer you to them [SpaceX] -- that's the answer."

"This is a billion-dollar satellite. It's been four days. Was it a success or a failure, and what's the fate of the satellite?" Capaccio continued.

Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the Pentagon's Joint Staff director, was equally unresponsive. "We're not going to be able to give you any more information," he said.

Others in the briefing room noted it wasn't a commercial launch in which SpaceX was the owner of the mission.

Capaccio pressed on. "Accountability is one of your keystones here. [Defense] Secretary [Jim] Mattis said this repeatedly. I'm asking you from an accountability standpoint ... can you give us a sense of whether you consider it a success or a failure as a mission?"

White again referred reporters to SpaceX.

"But you're the government. You paid for it. You're the overseers, and you're asking us to go to the company who may have been partially responsible for the problem? That doesn't make any sense," Capaccio said.

When asked if the Pentagon could provide statistics on how officials are holding themselves accountable for lost or botched multimillion-dollar programs, White said she would take that for the record for a later time.

SpaceX has stated that its rocket was not to blame.

"After review of all data to date, Falcon 9 did everything correctly on Sunday night," SpaceX told CNBC. "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," SpaceX's statement continued. "Due to the classified nature of the payload, no further comment is possible."

There are differing explanations floating around for what might have happened: One official said the upper stage of the Falcon 9 rocket failed, while another said Northrop's satellite never separated from the rocket, according to the Bloomberg and Wall Street Journal articles.

When asked about the misstep, Northrop told The Verge it would not publicly comment on a classified mission.

While the mission was livestreamed for viewers, the feed did not show the payload directly because of the mission's secrecy.

And it's still not clear which government agency was ultimately responsible for the effort.

The U.S. National Reconnaissance Office, an intelligence agency that falls under the Defense Department and initially believed by some observers to be connected to the mission, wasn't involved, according to a spokeswoman.

"The launch payload was not associated with the NRO," Karen Furgeson told Military.com on Tuesday.

United Launch Alliance LLC, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co., which SpaceX competes against for military launch business, is scheduled to launch a satellite later Thursday for the National Reconnaissance Office from a Delta IV rocket at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

-- Richard Sisk contributed to this report.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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