SpaceX successfully launches world’s first “space factory”

Its first product? Drugs.

On June 12, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket deployed 72 small satellites for customers — including the world’s first space factory.

The challenge: In 2019, pharma giant Merck revealed that an experiment on the International Space Station had shown how to make its blockbuster cancer drug Keytruda more stable. That meant it could now be administered via a shot rather than through an IV infusion.

The key to the discovery was the fact that particles behave differently when freed from the force of gravity — seeing how its drug crystalized in microgravity helped Merck figure out how to tweak its manufacturing process on Earth to produce the more stable version.

“There are many high-performance products that are only possible to make in zero-gravity.”

Will Bruey

Microgravity research could potentially lead to many more discoveries like this one, or even the development of brand-new drugs, but ISS astronauts only have so much time for commercial experiments.

The only options for accessing microgravity (or free fall) outside of orbit, meanwhile, are parabolic airplane flights and drop towers, and those are only useful for experiments that require less than a minute in microgravity — Merck’s ISS experiment took 18 days.

The idea: In 2021, California startup Varda Space Industries announced its intention to build  the world’s first space factory, to manufacture not only pharmaceuticals but other products that could benefit from being made in microgravity, such as semiconductors and fiber optic cables.

“We have a team stacked with aerospace talent in the prime of their careers.”

Will Bruey

This factory would consist of a commercial satellite platform attached to two Varda-made modules. One module would contain equipment capable of autonomously manufacturing a product. The other would be a reentry capsule to bring the finished goods back to Earth.

“There are many high-performance products that are only possible to make in zero-gravity, which is a manufacturing capability that cannot be replicated in any factory on Earth,” said CEO Will Bruey, who’d previously developed and flown spacecraft for SpaceX.

“We have a team stacked with aerospace talent in the prime of their careers, focused on getting working hardware to orbit as quickly as possible,” he continued.

What’s new? At the time, Varda said it planned to launch its first space factory in 2023, and, in what feels like a first for a space startup, it has actually hit that ambitious launch schedule.

“We have ACQUISITION OF SIGNAL,” the startup tweeted soon after the Falcon 9 launch on June 12. “The world’s first space factory’s solar panels have found the sun and it’s beginning to de-tumble.”

During the satellite’s first week in space, Varda will focus on testing its systems to make sure everything works as hoped. The second week will be dedicated to heating and cooling the old HIV-AIDS drug ritonavir repeatedly to study how its particles crystalize in microgravity.

After about a month in space, Varda will attempt to bring its first space factory back to Earth, sending it through the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds and then using a parachute system to safely land at the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range.

Looking ahead: Ultimately, Varda’s space factories could end up serving dual purposes as manufacturing facilities and hypersonic testbeds — the Air Force has already awarded the startup a contract to use its next reentry capsule to test hardware for hypersonic missiles.

But as for manufacturing other types of goods, Varda plans to stick with drugs for now.

“[Pharmaceuticals] are the most valuable chemicals per unit mass,” Bruey told CNN. “And they also have a large market on Earth.”

“You’re not going to see Varda do anything other than pharmaceuticals for the next minimum of six, seven years,” added Delian Asparouhov, Varda’s co-founder and president.

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