Space factory startup Varda secures NASA partnerships for next year’s demo flight


Co-founders of Varda

Varda Space Industries

Early-stage Varda Space Industries has signed a pair of agreements with NASA, the company announced Friday, guaranteeing access to key technologies the company will need for the first demonstration of its space factory system.

Varda’s goal is to develop a new method of manufacturing materials in space, an opportunity to build products that are more useful on Earth in the microgravity of space. The International Space Station has served as a testing ground for the technology, but Varda wants to produce materials on a larger scale. A recent McKinsey report highlighted the potential for making things from semiconductors to pharmaceuticals and more.

“These partnerships with NASA are a great way for us to accelerate development,” Varda co-founder Delian Asparouhov told TSTIME.

Varda’s system uses a three-piece vehicle: a spacecraft, a production module, and a capsule protected by the heat shield to re-enter the atmosphere and land. Founded in late 2020, Varda has raised $53 million to date and has recently relocated to a 61,000 square foot headquarters in El Segundo, California.

The first mission is scheduled to fly on a SpaceX launch, dubbed Transporter-8 – slated for the second quarter of next year. Rocket Lab supplies the spacecraft for the first four missions, while Varda makes the production module and capsule in-house.

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Varda’s two Space Act agreements signed with NASA — one with the Ames center in California and the other with the Langley center in Virginia — give the company access to reentry and heat shield technologies needed for its mission. This type of NASA partnership varies in scope, but typically gives space companies access to the agency’s technology at little to no cost.

A getaway vehicle that the company designed, built and tested in less than 18 months from the team’s first day of work.

Varda Space Industries

The partnership with NASA’s Ames allows Varda to purchase heat shield material, which Asparouhov says is “a very kind of proprietary material that’s pretty hard to get from NASA given the limited supply.”

In addition to purchasing materials for at least Varda’s first two missions, the agreement also gives the company the know-how to make the heat shields itself — what co-founder and CEO Will Bruey described as a “major vertical integration step for us.”

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“It’s a great two-way relationship because with NASA’s tech transfer we can also commercialize at the heat shield level and help them develop it further,” Bruey said.

Varda’s agreement with NASA’s Langley gives the company access to data on reentry, another critical component to its system.

“Basically getting access to a data model of how objects enter the atmosphere,” Asparouhov said, adding that “it’s incredibly important” to get approval from the Federal Aviation Administration in returning the spacecraft to Earth.

Varda engineers brainstorm on the company’s shop floor next to a prototype.

Varda Space Industries

Varda’s first version of its return capsule will weigh a total of 90 kilograms (or about 200 pounds), the company said. It represents a minimal viable product to prove that the system works, yielding a few pounds of fabricated material. Varda has yet to announce what material will be manufactured during the first missions.

The first capsule version will fly Varda’s first four missions and will return up to 10 to 15 kilograms of manufactured material per flight. The company aims to move to a second version of the vehicle by the end of 2025, designed to increase the amount of recycled material to 100 kilograms at a time.

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The company opens its new headquarters in El Segundo, California.

Varda Space Industries

Varda’s new headquarters gives the company the manufacturing capacity to produce between “six to eight flights a year,” Asparouhov said. The company is currently in the midst of its first mission testing campaign, conducting drop tests and working to integrate the vehicle with Rocket Lab’s spacecraft.

“It’s all foreclosure risk now, my favorite type of risk to have,” Bruey said.

Asparouhov, who is also director of Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund, noted that Varda is “pretty confident” it can “get through the first mission easily without further fundraising.”

So far, the company says its plan has progressed better than expected and the team has grown faster than previously forecast to more than 60 people.



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