Abby Jones | The Reentry Dilemma: Varda’s Winnebago and the FAA’s Rules of Reentry

In June 2023, Varda Space Industries (“Varda”) launched its Winnebago-1 spacecraft for an unmanned, month-long mission to develop the first drug made in space, an antiviral HIV and Hepatitis C medication. But it didn’t take long for Varda to run into a problem: it had not properly applied for a reentry license with the FAA Office of Commercial Space Operations.  

Winnebago-1, roughly the size of a trashcan, was meant to land at a designated landing range in Utah in early September 2023, but the FAA denied its reentry. Although the FAA may waive the reentry application requirement, it does so at its discretion, considering whether reentry poses no risk to public or environmental safety. (Commercial Space Law Act 1984, Title 51 U.S.C. 50905(b)(3)). A U.S. Air Force impact report concluded the landing would not be safe. 

“[T]he company did not demonstrate compliance [with FAA regulations],” an FAA spokesperson declared. Thus, no reentry license.  

Throughout the fall of 2023, Varda waited for permission to bring Winnebago-1 home. The craft itself was always intended to burn up on reentry, but the heat-resistant capsule was intended to parachute into a landing range. By November, the FAA still hadn’t let Varda bring its capsule home. Why the delay? Why take the risk of leaving one more piece of space debris in orbit?  

It’s possible this was a deterrent – a warning for future private entities sending what would ultimately become space junk into space. If companies know their failure to get a reentry license would delay the project and cause a tussle with the FAA, they will hopefully take the steps to do the proper procedure.  

But would this be counterintuitive? Ultimately – it seems like a policy decision focused more on future actions than the present ones. Whether that’s a good policy is hard to say, but considering rule-following is the point of agency oversight, it shouldn’t be too difficult of a pill to swallow for companies, starting with Varda.  

Varda brought its Winnebago home at the tail end of February 2024 after FAA deliberation and a pushed back reentry date. Positioned to be a major player in the manufacturing space, Varda will probably keep its paperwork in order before sending up its next capsule.  

By Abby Jones, a member of the Cleveland State University College of Law Global Space Law Center’s Research Council



The CSU Global Space Law Center 

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