Iran's home-brewed space program suffered an embarrassing failure today as its Safir rocket failed to deliver a Payam satellite into orbit. But to some U.S. government officials, this launch is not what it seems. They believe Iran’s space program is just a cover for the development of long-range missiles, though that view is not universally shared.
The Safir rocket’s third stage reportedly ran into trouble after the launch from Imam Khomeini Space Center in Iran's Semnan province early this morning. Previously, American officials didn't think the Safir even had a third stage, so previous information about the rocket was either incorrect or the rocket launched yesterday incorporated a new invention.
is described as 72 feet long and just more than four feet wide. As a two-stage rocket, Safir had a launch weight of 26 to 27 tons at liftoff, most of that fuel, and was thought to be capable of carrying up to 100 pounds into low-Earth orbit. A third stage should allow a heavier payload. Out of eight launches between 2009 and 2019, four have been successful.
Iran claims to be developing its own spaceflight industry because no one else will sell satellites and rockets to the country, a claim that is pretty much true. Iran’s orbiters have so far been mostly remote sensing and imaging satellites, although it also claims to have sent into orbit. There are no international agreements that prohibit the country from developing its own space rockets.
However, senior Trump administration officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, believe Iran is using the space launches to further its ballistic missile program, which could lead to missiles capable of striking the United States. However—while space rockets and ICBMs have a lot in common—The New York Times recently that the Pentagon and the U.S. intelligence community did not believe that was the case. Iran has been conducting space launches since 2005 and yet there has been little practical movement toward long-range missiles in that time frame.