Varda’s drug-cooking Winnebago will be remembered as a space pioneer

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Varda's reentry capsule soon after landing at the Utah Test and Training Range.
Enlarge / Varda’s reentry capsule soon after landing at the Utah Test and Training Range.

Varda Space Industries is finally able to celebrate. For nearly eight months, the in-space manufacturing company’s first mission was essentially stranded in low-Earth orbit, but not because of any technical malfunction or a restriction imposed by the laws of physics.

Instead, the spacecraft couldn’t return to Earth until Varda and three government entities—the US military, the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, and the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization—all got on the same page. This was far more complicated than anyone envisioned, and Varda had to bypass landing opportunities in July and September because it couldn’t secure governmental approvals.

Finally, earlier this month, the FAA approved a commercial reentry license for Varda’s space capsule, which was somewhat larger than a mini-fridge, to fall back into the atmosphere and parachute to a landing in the remote Utah desert southwest of Salt Lake City. Varda’s landing zone was at the Utah Test and Training Range, a sprawling military facility primarily used for weapons testing.

Varda’s capsule landed in the Utah desert at around 4:40 pm EST (2140 UTC) last Wednesday. Approaching from the north, the craft’s heat shield protected it from scorching temperatures during reentry. Then, the capsule deployed a 6.2-foot-diameter (2.1-meter) parachute to slow its velocity for a relatively gentle landing.

A recovery team went out to retrieve the nearly 200-pound capsule and connect it to a helicopter line for a short flight to a nearby processing facility, where engineers would prepare the spacecraft for transport back to Varda’s headquarters in El Segundo, California.

The mood at Varda following the successful landing was “as cheerful as it gets,” said Delian Asparouhov, who co-founded the company in 2020 with former SpaceX engineer Will Bruey and scientist Daniel Marshall.

“I always felt confidence in our team’s ability to accomplish this,” Asparouhov told Ars. “It was just a question of time.”

Waiting game

Varda achieved several firsts with this mission. The Utah Test and Training Range (UTTR) has some experience in supporting spacecraft landings, but this was the first time a commercial spacecraft landed at a military test range, adding another layer of regulatory and bureaucratic oversight. In September, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission deposited a cache of asteroid samples at UTTR.

Varda was the first company to secure a commercial FAA reentry license under streamlined commercial spaceflight regulations known as Part 450. This licensing paradigm is regularly used for commercial launches (there were 117 FAA-licensed launches last year), but this was the first time any company went through this process for a reentry.

Only two companies received commercial FAA reentry licenses before Varda—Lockheed Martin for a single test flight of the Orion spacecraft in 2014 and SpaceX for more than 40 commercial flights of its Dragon crew and cargo spacecraft. Both companies have operated under previous licensing regimes before the FAA introduced the revised Part 450 protocol in 2020.

The FAA’s commercial space office is responsible for licensing commercial launch and reentry operations, with a primary interest in ensuring that these activities don’t endanger the public. But FAA air traffic controllers had to find a time to clear a broad swath of airspace around the trajectory of Varda’s descending space capsule. The FAA’s temporary flight restriction for Varda’s reentry was unusually large, particularly for such a small spacecraft, stretching more than 400 miles (700 kilometers) long and 60 miles (100 kilometers) wide from southern Montana to western Utah.

The timing of Varda’s reentry, along with Varda’s access to the secure military facility, also had to be coordinated with the test range’s busy schedule of military exercises.

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