After producing crystals of an HIV drug in space, the first orbital factory becomes stuck in orbit after being denied re-entry to Earth for safety reasons.

Taking out the trash (in space)

The US Air Force rejected a request from Varda Space Industries to land its space-producing capsule at a training site in Utah, while the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) did not grant the company permission to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere, leaving the spacecraft hanging The company is trying to find a solution, TechCrunch first reported. An FAA spokesperson told TechCrunch via email that the company’s application is not currently being approved “based on the overall safety, risk and impact analysis.”

Gizmodo reached out to Varda Space to ask what regulatory requirements it wasn’t meeting, but the company responded with a two-word email that ominously said “No comment.” The Californian startup provided an update on its spacecraft via X (formerly Twitter). “We are pleased to report that our spacecraft is healthy in all systems. It was originally designed to last a full year in orbit if necessary,” Varda Space wrote on X. “We look forward to continuing to work with our government partners to return our capsule to Earth as quickly as possible.”

Varda Space launched its spacecraft on June 12 aboard a Falcon 9 rocket. The 264-pound (120-kilogram) capsule is designed to produce products in a zero-gravity environment and transport them back to Earth. On June 30, the company managed to grow crystals in orbit of the drug ritonavir, used to treat HIV, in its first drug-making experiment. The microgravity environment offers some advantages that could lead to better production in space and overall reduce gravity-induced defects. According to NASA, protein crystals created in space form larger and more perfect crystals than those created on Earth.

“Space drugs are ready, baby!!!” Delian Asparouhov, co-founder of Varda, wrote on X: Unfortunately, the space drugs are not allowed to return to Earth, baby. According to TechCrunch, the Varda capsule re-entry was originally scheduled for September 5th or 7th, but the company’s request was rejected on September 6th. Varda officially asked the FAA to reconsider its decision on September 8, and that request is still pending.

“It’s a completely different type of re-entry capsule. If you think about it, these are both Dragon and Starliner [SpaceX] Vehicles costing at least $100 million to build and total programs worth more than $1 billion. “These are intended to transport people, have active control and fully pressurized environments,” Asparouhov is quoted as saying in an interview in Ars Technica. “We are virtually the exact opposite of reentry vehicles. If these are luxury sedans, we’re building like a 1986 Toyota Corolla that will cost less than a million dollars apiece, be renovated quickly and then shot straight back into space.”

Varda’s in-space production capsule is a byproduct of a growing space industry that allows easier access to low Earth orbit. The current regulatory debacle is also the result of a fledgling space industry that is still developing appropriate regulations for spacecraft.

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