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Rocket Lab begins maneuvers to bring Varda’s capsule back to Earth

With the FAA finally giving its okay (six months late), Rocket Lab has now begun the orbital maneuvers required to bring Varda’s small manufacturing capsule back to Earth at the Utah test range.

For more than eight months in space, Rocket Lab’s 300kg-class spacecraft has successfully provided power, communications, ground control, and attitude control to allow Varda’s capsule to grow Ritonavir crystals, a drug commonly used as an antiviral medication for HIV and hepatitis C.

Due to the initial planned reentry date being adjusted from late 2023, Rocket Lab’s spacecraft has been required to operate for more than double its intended orbital lifespan, which it has done without issue.

If all goes as planned, the capsule will land on February 21, 2024. Whether those drugs are still viable and sellable remains unknown. The delay due to government red-tape might have made them useless.

Nonetheless, a success in recovering those samples, viable or not, would establish Varda’s business plan. With three more missions planned, all to be launched and controlled by Rocket Lab, it will be positioned well for the future, its capsule a method for manufacturing a number of products in weightlessness that are needed on Earth but can only be made in space.

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On Christmas Eve 1968 three Americans became the first humans to visit another world. What they did to celebrate was unexpected and profound, and will be remembered throughout all human history. Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, Robert Zimmerman's classic history of humanity's first journey to another world, tells that story, and it is now available as both an ebook and an audiobook, both with a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by Robert Zimmerman.

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"Not simply about one mission, [Genesis] is also the history of America's quest for the moon... Zimmerman has done a masterful job of tying disparate events together into a solid account of one of America's greatest human triumphs."--San Antonio Express-News


  • wayne

    WHAT is this pharmaceutical company, up to?

    The internet tells me Ritonavir is off-patent and available generically.

    Unless they get a new-indication approval, for which they have to do the studies, or the FDA reclassifies this specific molecule being synthesized in space, as a new-entity, this can’t be economical.
    Their business Model must be to sell it to the government, cuz’ they always overpay.

  • Wayne: See this post: Charles Walker: the first commercial astronaut. There is real money to be made here, even if it isn’t this particular drug.

  • sippin_bourbon


    So it is my understanding that this is an experiment.
    They know what ritonavir is supposed to look like and how it behaves using conventional manufacturing processes.
    They could be using this known medication as a control for the test of the new process.

    Speculation, but it would explain why.

  • wayne

    Fair enough– it’s an experiment, but we are missing some vital information on why this is being done. This is an off-patent molecule which is also listed as an ‘essential medicine,’ and is currently synthesized on Earth for less than a few bucks per 100mg dose.

    Apparently– Ritonavir is subject to “crystal polymorphism,” wherein it can settle into 2 different crystalline structures which have different bioavailability and action.

    No way they do all this, to sell the molecule for the low price it currently nets.
    Not saying its nefarious, just sayin’ this article is missing Factoids as to motivation.

  • pzatchok

    This whole launch and the start up it self is predicated on gaining the patent on in orbit drug production first.

    They will them charge all other pha companies a small fee for using their patent. And it will be comparatively small so that they can all afford it. And so that none will take them to court over it and thus risk loosing the exclusive patent.

    And they will buy it because of the way our US drugs are classified. A supposed “new” drug could just be an old one with a very slight concentration change. This gives them all a whole new way to charge huge amounts for old drugs.

  • Griff

    Perhaps the experiment is in pursuit of a process patent vs. a product patent.

  • Edward

    You wrote: “Fair enough– it’s an experiment, but we are missing some vital information on why this is being done.

    We may not be missing as much information as you may think. It is clear that the whole process is being tested, from the design of the orbital factory to the on orbit operations to the reentry back to Earth to the sale of the product. Using a well known medication removes the problem of wondering whether manufacturing problems was due to the nature of the product or a problem with the orbital factory. But what is really telling about the nature of this test is the tremendously long delay in being able to bring back the sample, reentry being a process that is well established and understood, and multiple available reentry sites in the U.S. Since politics is not likely to be the major obstacle, it seems that the bureaucracy is. This is a poor harbinger of the future of space manufacturing. At least for U.S. reentry destinations.

    So this end-to-end test has produced important results, one of which is the knowledge of where is the major roadblock for the future of space exploration. If we cannot do business in space, then it remains the purview not the general public but of governments. The rate of advancement over the past three quarters of a century shows that governments do not advance space in a timely manner but that the general public is eager to invest its own money to do so for the betterment of all mankind.

    Modern commercial space (more than just communication satellites) is only about a dozen years old, and already we are close to successfully manufacturing beneficial medications in space. Under government space operations, this did not happen and was even actively stifled when it was about to start happening, as the link in Robert’s comment to you noted.

    Commercial space has spent the past dozen years working to overcome the obstacles of bureaucracy. It is as difficult as developing the productive hardware in the first place. Maybe even more so.

  • Edward: Your point here is excellent. The Varda mission has demonstrated clearly the biggest obstacle to the development of space, and it isn’t technical or financial, it is government oppression. How neat, but very sad. We should have expected an American mission would demonstrate the exact opposite, but then this country really isn’t any longer the America that it was founded to be.

  • Edward

    You wrote: “… but then this country really isn’t any longer the America that it was founded to be.

    This is correct, and our hampered efforts in space exploration and exploitation are an excellent example.

    The Declaration of Independence is filled with grievances about how government interferes with the people that governments were created to help.

    Man created government to do three things. Protect us from enemies, both foreign and domestic, peaceably resolve disputes as an uninterested third party, and stay out of our way as we live our lives and determine our livelihoods and the future of our society. These concepts are enumerated in the Constitution’s Preamble, the statement of intent for forming our government. It is a brief mission statement, and we can see that our government has deviated from that statement.

    We have recently seen riots that government has not only let continue but has encouraged. We have seen millions of unknown aliens enter this country, possibly for anti-American activities, but definitely to benefit from the labors of our citizens, rather than become productive part of our citizenship. We have seen court cases that very clearly were unfair, biased, and partial against specific citizens, because they dared to oppose the reigning regime, members of whom are allowed the privilege of committing with impunity various felonies of anti-American natures.

    And we have seen several examples of government preventing or delaying productive development of our resources, including our space resources. Many of these interferences are covered in the grievances listed in the Declaration of Independence. American government has failed us in all of the areas that it was founded to accomplish and provide. It has taken upon itself to tell us how to live, to make our livelihoods, and dictates the future direction of our society.

    Our Founding Fathers had intended for citizen leaders to go into government for a brief time, bringing their experiences from real life with them to inform them what was needed from government. This differed from the “professional” policy makers that had made such a mess of the various colonies and even of the home countries in the eighteenth century and before. Now, we have life-long policymakers, people who have never held a real job, like Biden and Pelosi, and they have no idea what it is like to live outside the ivory towers or to run a business. Even AOC, who was a barmaid, has the wrong idea of what it takes to run a company, but all these people think that they know what is best for us, and they declare our disagreements with them to be banned disinformation. Despite our representatives being the excuse for taxing We the People, these representatives have abrogated their responsibilities and their representation to life-long professional bureaucrats who think they can make policies regulating our lives, livelihoods, and our society. We are taxed, but we are not represented.

    “… and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity …” Liberty being “the state of being free within society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one’s way of life, behavior, or political views” The more regulations imposed upon us, the less liberty we have, violating the letter and the spirit of the Constitution, the intentions of the Founders, and the desires of We the People.

    The United States was founded to be a federal government, a federation of the colonies-turned-states, independent of their former empire. Today, this federal government acts as a national government, where the rights of the states, as noted in the Tenth Amendment, have been subsumed by the national government. The national government has unconstitutionally expanded into areas that were “reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

    Thus, rather than government working for us, it works for itself — against us. Varda is only one example of this.

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