The first orbital factory, developed by Varda Space Industries, is currently stranded in space after being denied permission to return to Earth due to safety concerns. The United States Air Force rejected the company’s request to land its manufacturing capsule in a Utah training area, while the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) did not grant permission for reentry into Earth’s atmosphere.
The FAA cited “overall safety, risk analysis, and impact” as the reason for denying the request. Varda Space has not provided details on which regulatory requirements have not been met, responding with a simple “no comments” in an email.
Despite being stranded, Varda Space assures that the spacecraft is still functioning properly. The capsule was originally designed to stay in orbit for up to a year if necessary. The company hopes to collaborate with government partners to find a solution and bring the capsule back to Earth as soon as possible.
The spacecraft, launched on June 12th, weighs 120 kilograms and is designed to manufacture products in a microgravity environment. Its first experiment successfully produced ritonavir, an HIV medication, crystals in orbit, taking advantage of the benefits of the microgravity environment that can lead to improved production and higher-quality crystals.
Varda’s capsule was scheduled to reenter the atmosphere on September 5th or 7th, but the company’s request was denied on September 6th. They have since applied for a reconsideration with the FAA and are awaiting a response.
Varda Space’s manufacturing capsule represents the growing ability of the space industry to access low Earth orbit more easily. However, it also highlights the challenges faced by a young space industry where regulations for spacecraft are still being developed.