Varda signs partnerships with NASA for a space factory demonstration flight next year

Varda co-founders

Varda Space Industries

Varda Space Industries has signed a pair of agreements with NASA, the company announced on 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 making materials in space, an opportunity to build useful products on Earth more efficiently in the microgravity of space. The International Space Station served as a test bed for the technology – but Varda wants to produce materials on a larger scale. A recent McKinsey report highlighted the manufacturing potential 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 CNBC.

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

Its first mission is set to fly on a SpaceX launch, called Transporter-8 – scheduled for the second quarter of next year. Rocket Lab is supplying the spacecraft for the first four missions, with Varda manufacturing the fabrication module and capsule in-house.

Varda’s pair of Space Act agreements signed with NASA – one with the Ames Center in California and the other with the Langley Center in Virginia – gives the company access to re-entry and heat shield technologies necessary for its mission. This type of partnership with NASA varies in scope, but generally gives space companies access to the agency’s technology at little or no cost.

A flight vehicle that the company designed, built and tested in less than 18 months from the team’s first day on the job.

Varda Space Industries

The partnership with NASA’s Ames will allow Varda to purchase thermal shielding material, which, according to Asparouhov, “is a very proprietary type of material that is quite difficult to obtain from NASA given the limited inventory.”

In addition to buying hardware for at least Varda’s first two missions, the deal also gives the company the know-how to manufacture the heat shields itself – something co-founder and CEO Will Bruey described as “a big vertical integration move for us”.

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

Varda’s deal with NASA’s Langley gives the company access to atmospheric re-entry data, another crucial component for its system.

“Essentially, having access to a data model of how objects enter the atmosphere,” Asparouhov said, adding that “it’s extremely important” to get Federal Aviation Administration approval when the aircraft returns. spaceship on Earth.

Varda engineers brainstorm in the company’s workshop next to a prototype.

Varda Space Industries

Varda’s first version of its reentry capsule will weigh 90 kilograms (or about 200 pounds) in total, the company said. It represents a minimum viable product to prove that the system works and will yield a few kilograms of manufactured material. Varda has yet to announce what gear will be made during the initial missions.

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

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 and eight flights a year”, Asparouhov said. The company is currently in the middle of its first-mission test campaign, performing drop tests and working on integrating the vehicle with Rocket Lab’s spacecraft.

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

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

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