After manufacturing crystals of an HIV drug in space, the first orbital factory is stuck in orbit after being denied reentry back to Earth due to safety concerns.
The U.S. Air Force denied a request from Varda Space Industries to land its in-space manufacturing capsule at a Utah training area, while the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) did not grant the company permission to reenter Earth’s atmosphere, leaving its spacecraft hanging as the company scrambles to find a solution, TechCrunch first reported. A spokesperson from the FAA told TechCrunch in an emailed statement that the company’s request was not granted at this time “due to the overall safety, risk and impact analysis.”
Gizmodo reached out to Varda Space to ask which regulatory requirements have not been met, but the company responded with a two-word email that ominously read, “no comment.” The California-startup did provide an update on its spacecraft through X (formerly Twitter). “We’re pleased to report that our spacecraft is healthy across all systems. It was originally designed for a full year on orbit if needed,” Varda Space wrote on X. “We look forward to continuing to collaborate w/ our gov partners to bring our capsule back to Earth as soon as possible.”
Varda Space launched its spacecraft on board a Falcon 9 rocket on June 12. The 264-pound (120-kilogram) capsule is designed to manufacture products in a microgravity environment and transport them back to Earth. On June 30, its first drug-manufacturing experiment succeeded in growing crystals of the drug ritonavir, which is used for the treatment of HIV, in orbit. The microgravity environment provides some benefits that could make for better production in space, overall reducing gravity-induced defects. Protein crystals made in space form larger and more perfect crystals than those created on Earth, according to NASA.
“SPACE DRUGS HAVE FINISHED COOKING BABY!!” Delian Asparouhov, Varda’s co-founder, wrote on X. Unfortunately, the space drugs are not allowed to come back to Earth, baby. Varda’s capsule was originally scheduled for reentry on September 5 or 7, but the company’s application was denied on September 6, according to TechCrunch. Varda formally requested that the FAA reconsider its decision on September 8, and that request is still pending.
“It’s a very different type of re-entry capsule. If you think about it, both Dragon and Starliner, these are [SpaceX] vehicles that are $100 million-plus, minimum, to build, and billion-dollar-plus total programs. These are meant to carry humans, have active control, fully pressurized environments,” Asparouhov is quoted as saying in an interview in Ars Technica. “We are effectively the polar opposite type of re-entry vehicle. If those are luxurious limousines, we’re building like a 1986 Toyota Corolla that is meant to be less than a million bucks a pop, quickly refurbished, and then shot right back into space.”
Varda’s in-space manufacturing capsule is a byproduct of a growing space industry, which grants easier access to low Earth orbit. The current regulatory debacle is a also the result of a young space industry, one in which proper regulations of spacecraft are still taking shape.