NASA has awarded Firefly Aerospace of Cedar Park, Texas, founded by Ukraine’s Max Polyakov, approximately $93.3 million to deliver a suite of 10 science investigations and technology demonstrations to the Moon in 2023.
The award is part of the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative, in which NASA is securing the service of commercial partners to quickly land science and technology payloads on the lunar surface. The initiative is a key part of NASA’s Artemis program. Firefly Aerospace will be responsible for end-to-end delivery services, including payload integration, launch from Earth, landing on the Moon, and mission operations. This is the sixth award for lunar surface delivery under the CLPS initiative.
FA, founded by Max Polyakov of Ukraine, develops new, small satellite launch vehicles.
It has its plant and an R&D center in Dnipro, Ukraine, employing nearly 200 specialists.
The headquarters are in Austin, Texas. Among founder Max Polyakov’s space projects are also SETS engines, EOS SAT optical satellites, and EOS SAR radars. FA plans to launch a rocket launcher Firefly Alpha.
“Your passion can drive you forward wherever you were born,” he says. In three to five years, “we will be at the right time, at the right place, with a product that eats the market.”
It’s unclear exactly how much money Polyakov has. He refuses to say, and there are no reliable estimates to draw on, though the combined value of the businesses he either runs or has invested in tops $1 billion. He’s slightly above average in height and build, but extraordinary when it comes to conversational energy.
After spending most of his 20s as a student, Polyakov created a string of successful gaming, dating, and advertising websites, along with a software outsourcing company and a series of business software makers. Some of these ventures went public, such as dating service Cupid plc. Others have been acquired by the likes of Oracle and Blackstone in deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Polyakov says the businesses he presently has a hand in employ more than 4,000 people in Ukraine, plus an additional 450 overseas.
In an effort to bring young people back to the city, he’s given millions of dollars to local universities to set up programs in aerospace, robotics, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, and other engineering programs in retooled facilities with subsidized faculty. “The professors still get shit salaries,” Polyakov says. “So we are paying them.”
Polyakov manages these endeavors under a philanthropic venture called Noosphere, as in a term coined by Vladimir Vernadsky, a Russo-Ukrainian scientist. Vernadsky first popularized the idea of the biosphere, the notion of grand, interlocking forces that shape the Earth. After World War II, he came up with the noosphere as a similar global ecosystem driven by human intellect. Vernadsky celebrated technological progress but urged that it be accomplished in harmony with the environment. He also saw space travel as the natural next evolution of the human species, with our intelligence following its destiny and spreading out into the universe.
He says he wants to put his money into Ukraine to reenergize it and create “passion people who want to change things and do something.” Education, he says, is a chance to retain some of the engineering prowess from the Soviet era.