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Orbiting drug factory lands in Utah in dawn of a new era

Former Utahn behind the project says, “We’re going to do it again and again.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Workers from Varda Space Industries check out the capsule at the Wendover Airport after it landed in the West Desert on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024.

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

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Wendover • It’s 3 feet tall and weighs less than 200 pounds, but inside is a chemical factory that moves at 18,000 mph.

Nicknamed Winnebago-1, it’s Varda Space Industries’ first capsule, and it landed Wednesday in Utah after spending eight months orbiting Earth.

Varda, co-founded by entrepreneur and West High School graduate Delian Asparouhov, intends to make regular trips to low orbit to produce chemicals for pharmaceuticals in zero gravity. This flight marks the first time a private company has manufactured a product in zero gravity in its own spacecraft.

[Read more about Delian Asparouhov’s Utah ties and his rise in the tech world.]

Asparouhov tweeted on X, formerly known as Twitter, after the capsule touched down, promising “we’re going to do it again and again and establish the first industrial celestial empire.”

The capsule had been dropping out of orbit since Sunday night, when the first of four burners were fired to slow it down. The last two burners were fired Wednesday.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A helicopter brings the capsule to the Wendover Airport on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024.

Once in the atmosphere, a parachute deployed to bring the capsule to a soft landing at the Utah Test and Training Range, the broad expanse west of the Great Salt Lake where the U.S. Air Force trains pilots. From there, it was airlifted by helicopter to Wendover’s airport.

“We’re extremely thrilled,” the 30-year-old Asparouhov said in a phone interview after the launch. He said the company is already planning its next launch in summer.

“We’ll have our first commercial customers on board this summer,” meaning manufacturing under a contract with a pharmaceutical company. This launch was mainly about testing the systems.

(Varda Space Industries) West High graduate Delian Asparouhov, seated, and business partner Will Bruey are co-founders of Varda Space Industries, a startup that aims to produce pharmaceutical chemicals in space.

Private companies have produced small amounts of products in zero gravity on the International Space Station, but this marks the first time it has been done in a private spacecraft, which Asparouhov said is necessary to provide sufficient scale for sustainable business. As it is, the cost of manufacturing chemicals in space is thousands of dollars per gram, a cost that is prohibitive for most materials but not pharmaceuticals.

The capsule was launched last June in what was originally planned to be about a monthlong trip. But complications with scheduling the landing pushed it back several months. The chemical production happened in that first month, and the craft had been orbiting since then.

Varda, based in the aerospace industry hub of El Segundo, Calif., will take the capsule back to the Golden State. But the vials produced in the manufacturing process will go to a company in Indiana for further testing and analysis.

Varda contracted with Long Beach, Calif.-based Rocket Lab, which builds and launches rockets that carry small payloads such as communications satellites.

“Rocket Lab’s spacecraft has been required to operate for more than double its intended orbital lifespan, which it has done without issue,” said Rocket Lab in a statement. “The extended nominal performance of the spacecraft is testament to its robust design, flight-proven hardware and subsystems, and an experienced team of mission operators.”

As Asparouhov explains, making drugs in space is about building tighter crystals. The chemicals start out in a solution, and “the molecules are floating around as individual happy pals.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Workers from Varda Space Space Industries steer the capsule to a pallet as a helicopter brings it to the Wendover Airport on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024.

But when the chemicals precipitate out of the solution, they form a crystalline structure, like the salt crystals that form when salt water evaporates.

“When that occurs, it occurs differently if gravity is not involved,” he said. “It’s a different crystalline structure.”

Asparourov gave the example of Keytruda, an immunotherapy drug used to treat cancer patients. Doctors are limited in how concentrated a Keytruda dose can be because it gets too thick to move through a syringe.

“If you crystallize it in microgravity,” he said, “you can increase the packing density without increasing the viscosity.”

On this inaugural flight, the spacecraft produced crystals for Ritonavir, an antiviral drug used to treat HIV. The vials with those crystals will be sent to an Indiana lab for further testing and analysis.

Varda’s financing comes from several technology investors, including Founders Fund, an $11 billion fund in which Asparouhov is a partner. This project is also funded by a $60 million grant from the U.S. Defense Department and NASA as part of a study on reentry vehicles.