Varda Space Industries finally gets permission to bring its drug-making spacecraft back to Earth

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Varda Space Industries has received long-awaited approval from regulators to return its first spacecraft to Earth – and with it, a batch of pharmaceutical crystals manufactured in orbit.

Varda’s Winnebago capsule has been in limbo for months. The company launched the spacecraft on a SpaceX Transporter mission eight months ago, with plans to return it to Earth last July. But Varda had been unable to obtain required regulatory approvals to attempt to land, leaving the spacecraft stuck in orbit while the company worked with regulators to bring it home.

With this approval, Varda now targets a landing attempt at the Utah Air Force Test and Training Range on February 21. The capsule contains crystals of the drug Ritonavir, used to treat HIV/AIDS, which were manufactured in orbit. Rocket Lab’s Photon spacecraft, which housed Varda’s manufacturing capsule in orbit, will burn up in the atmosphere upon re-entry.

“We are incredibly proud to have this opportunity with our government partners and appreciate their dedication to safe innovation in the United States,” Varda said in a statement.

In that same statement, the El Segundo-based startup notes that it was the first to seek permission to reenter a spacecraft under a new set of FAA regulations known as Part 450. This is also the first time that the FAA has authorized a commercial company to land. a spaceship on American soil. (SpaceX’s Dragon capsule is allowed to land in the Atlantic Ocean or Gulf of Mexico.)

Varda is one of a handful of startups seeking to harness the benefits of microgravity to make materials such as pharmaceuticals. The company aims to return spacecraft containing manufactured materials to Earth up to once a month by 2026. For its next mission, which has not yet launched, Varda announced that it would land its second spacecraft at the Australian Koonibba Test Range. This year.

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