Orbiting Space Drug Factory Denied Re-Entry to Earth

There’s a drug used to treat HIV orbiting the planet and we won’t let it come back to Earth.
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The United States Air Force has denied re-entry and landing permission for a floating drug factory that has apparently been orbiting the Earth producing zero-gravity pharmaceuticals since June.

Originally reported by TechCrunch, the in-space drug production capsule owned and operated by Varda Space Industries has been experimenting with making a certain kind of HIV medication in low-gravity environments. Varda announced on June 30 they had successfully synthesized a vial of Ritonavir crystals, a drug used to treat HIV.

“Over the last day, for the first time ever, orbital drug processing happened outside of a government-run space station,” Varda said in a post to their X account. “Our crystallization of Ritonavir appears to have been nominal.”

The capsule was originally slated to come back down to Earth on July 17 to bolster its newly-synthesized crystals of Ritonavir, a drug used to treat HIV, but their plans were delayed until early September for reasons they somewhat danced around in a post to their X account.

“Our original reentry date of July 17th was pushed back, as we work [with] our government partners to ensure everyone is fully ready,” Varda said in July. “The pharma crystals onboard are ready to come home!”

Courtesy Varda Space

Varda was subsequently denied permission to land at an Air Force training area in Utah for reasons the company chose not to disclose, though a spokesperson for the Air Force provided the following statement on the matter to TechCrunch:

“September 5 and 7 were their primary targets. The request to use the Utah Test and Training Range for the landing location was not granted at this time due to the overall safety, risk and impact analysis. In a separate process, the FAA has not granted a reentry license. All organizations continue working to explore recovery options,” the statement said.

Varda also chose not to comment on why their September re-entry dates were denied, posting only a brief update to their X account saying the capsule had enough resources to stay in space much longer if need be.

“As a quick update, 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 said. “We look forward to continuing to collaborate [with] our gov partners to bring our capsule back to Earth as soon as possible.”

Varda applied for a reconsideration to the FAA decision on September 8 but the FAA had only a brief statement for TechCrunch about the matter, saying ““On September 8, Varda formally requested that the FAA reconsider its decision. The request for reconsideration is pending.”

Ritonavir is not a new drug. It was first synthesized in 1989 and can be made on Earth. The novel part of what Varda is doing appears to be the way in which they conduct their crystallization process.

“Conducting polymorph, salt and cocrystal screens in microgravity can lead to novel form discovery,” said an excerpt from the Varda website. “Reduced crystal growth rates result in the formation of high quality single crystals that can be used for X-ray structure determination.”

The benefits of producing drugs in low gravity compared to producing them on Earth are a bit beyond my simple journalism powers of understanding, though Varda does offer an explanation of the process on their website:

“Processing materials in microgravity, or the near-weightless conditions found in space, offers a unique environment not available through terrestrial processing. These benefits primarily stem from the lack of convection and sedimentation.These effects are ‘locked’ into the material, typically through material crystallization, before being brought back to Earth.”

The Air Force said they will continue to work with Varda and the FAA to safely bring the capsule back home to Earth but they could not provide an estimated re-entry date.

“Our objective at the Utah Test and Training Range remains working with customers requesting reentry missions in a safe, secure, and sustainable fashion, upon which Varda (and potentially future partners) can model their investments, engagement, and activities,” an Air Force spokesperson said to TechCrunch. “We also stress this is a whole-of-government and interagency process to set the correct precedents for future activities such as these.”

Now while I may not personally need any Ritonavir, I sincerely hope that we as a people can get our collective scientific shit together and safely bring these space drugs back home to Earth. Doing so would be one small step for man, one giant leap toward me getting to try “Martian LSD” or whatever the hell it ends up being sometime in the near future. Just let me dream.

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