WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force plans to use startup Varda Space Industries’ reentry capsules as hypersonic flight test platforms, the company’s cofounder Delian Asparouhov told SpaceNews.

Varda has been raising venture funds to send to orbit 120-kilogram “factory” satellites to make products in zero-gravity and return them to Earth in a reentry capsule. The Air Force would use the capsule as a platform to test the performance of components and materials at hypersonic speeds.

Asparouhov, who is also president of Varda Space, said the company in January secured $60 million in “strategic funding increase,” a type of agreement known as STRATFI. Under these agreements, the U.S. Air Force and other government agencies commit to financing a project and private investors put in matching funds.

The agreement is to evaluate the use of Varda’s reentry capsules — where the company plans to bring back to Earth pharmaceutical products and other items manufactured on orbit — as a test platform for components the Air Force intends to use in future hypersonic missiles and aircraft.

Government and private funds

The $60 million agreement includes $15 million from Air Force and NASA customers, $15 million from the AFWERX organization that sponsors the STRATFI program, and $30 million in private funding from Varda’s venture investors.

Varda Space, based in Torrance, California, plans to manufacture a range of products in the microgravity environment of low Earth orbit, including pharmaceuticals and optical fiber.

Asparouhov said the first demonstration mission is scheduled to launch in June on SpaceX’s Transporter 8 rideshare. The company plans to demonstrate “melt-cool drug production capabilities.”

The manufacturing spacecraft are built on Rocket Lab Photon buses. In addition to the bus used for the June mission, Varda has purchased three additional Photon buses to build more satellites, said Asparouhov. 

The Air Force is not flying a test payload on Varda’s first mission, he said. The company will share this mission’s flight data with the Air Force and expects the Air Force’s first payload to fly in 2024.

Rendering of Varda’s reentry capsule. Credit: Varda Space

Air Force awarded study contract in 2021

The STRATFI contract comes two years after the Air Force awarded Varda a $443,000 Small Business Innovation Research contract to study the company’s reentry capsule as a more economical alternative to traditional flight testing. 

During reentry, the capsule enters the atmosphere at Mach 25 and experiences temperatures three times hotter than the surface of the sun.

“Unfortunately, modern dedicated hypersonic flight test programs can cost over $100 million per flight and adapting additional sensors to qualified or crewed reentry vehicles for flight testing introduces unacceptable risks,” said the SBIR award justification.

Varda is designing a reentry vehicle for its commercial business that can be leveraged for material testing, the Air Force said.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...