New Book about space startups tells the story of Firefly Aerospace

Ashlee Vance’s book When the Heavens Went on Sale, containing four incredible stories of the formation of space startups, was published in the USA on May 9. A special place in it is dedicated to the story about the company Firefly Aerospace; a few years ago, Max Polyakov, a successful businessman from Ukraine, created it.

The book When the Heavens Went on Sale was published in the USA. Source:

New book about space startups

American columnist Ashlee Vance has prepared a book for publication called When the Heavens Went on Sale. He is a columnist who travels the world and communicates with people who head commercial space companies. 

Vance is known all over the world as the author of the biography of Elon Musk. But this time he paid attention not to SpaceX, but to four other companies: Firefly Space, Planet, Rocket Lab и Astra. And the story about each of them is very different from the usual sleek story about young businessmen working hard to implement an idea that for some reason no one else gets into their heads. 

Frank story about space startups

The book is full of sharp topics and the space business is shown in it without beautiful words. It is best characterized by the dialogue of the two characters in the book. It took place between two aerospace engineers who worked at Astra in 2018: Les Martin and Matt Flanagan.

They discussed the problems of the rocket launch industry and reflected on how any company ever made money from launching rockets.

“The challenge is to get there before you run out of money,” Martin said.

“Right.,” Flanagan agreed.

“Because it doesn’t take long. I mean, you raise a little money, you can run through it quick. All the money that is being dumped into this is absurd. There’s some charlatans in this business for sure. And what’s it all for? I don’t see the need for all of it. It doesn’t make sense. These VCs made their money in software or whatever. And you know, they just love space. I think a lot of it is it’s just cool for them to invest their money in this.

Even with us, the whole goal is for us to launch daily. I’m either going to be dead in the ground before that happens or I’ll be walking down the street with money falling out of my pockets and won’t care that they’re launching daily.”

Firefly Aerospace saved by Max Polyakov

A special place in the book is occupied by the history of Firefly Aerospace. It was founded by engineer Tom Markusic, but later it almost went bankrupt. And then a completely different person appeared — Ukrainian businessman Maxim Polyakov, who actually saved the startup.

Maxim Polyakov. Source:

At the same time, Markusic and Polyakov at the very beginning felt little sympathy for each other. Just the first one needed money and technical assistance that a Ukrainian could provide. And the second needed the talent of the founder of Firefly Aerospace to realize his cosmic dream.

However, the two men were able to find common ground for dialogue and formed one of the strangest alliances in the space industry. And then they were able to explode with fireworks of achievements. Many Vance observed with his own eyes.

Crazy Path of Firefly Aerospace

For example, he described a scene that played out on board a private plane that flew from California to Austin in Texas in August 2020. Both Markusic and Polyakov were on board the plane at that time and a frank conversation took place between them. The engineer complained about how unbearable it was to work with a Ukrainian, to which he accused him of a number of false promises. To this Markusik agreed that he really knew how to promise.

In the book, Vance is very supportive of Polyakov. He describes many moments that look rather doubtful with humor. Knowing that the Ukrainian earned money on dating sites, the columnist did not expect anything special from him. But he finds a really passionate and intelligent man who loves his country.

Despite all the acute moments, Polyakov and Markusik were able to build a wonderful company. The Alpha rocket became the embodiment of the ability to conquer space. They were also able to interest NASA and even start building a lunar lander. Firefly Aerospace turned out to be a surprisingly stable enterprise.

Astra Space

The history of the Astra Space company described in the book looked no less crazy. The most dramatic episode in its history is the events of winter 2018. Then dozens of engineers spent several months preparing an attempt at a commercial suborbital launch from Kodiak Island in Alaska.

The launch took place and the rocket flew properly for the first 30 seconds. But then it turned around and crashed into the ground. The CEO of the company, Chris Kemp, did not say anything publicly at the time, but told investors that the launch was successful.

Chris Kemp (right). Source: Matthew Busch/Bloomberg

And it wasn’t Kemp’s first such venture. Being an intelligent and talented person, he is at the same time very inclined to get caught up. Therefore, investing in everything he does is a very, very risky business. No wonder one of the sections about his company is called “Cash on Fire”.

So, the conversation mentioned above between two Astra engineers is a story about themselves without beautiful words. In addition, it should also be taken into account that they have not learned how to launch one rocket a day. The startup has not carried out a single successful launch at all between 2018 and 2020.

And everyone already thought that Kemp had run out of money, but he decided to go out with shares on the stock exchange. In a statement dedicated to this event, he mentioned Rocket Lab, which he constantly looked up to and which launches rockets more or less regularly.

Kemp said that Rocket Lab was the devil knows what, and not a company, because they made a successful launch a few years ago. But so far they launch only a few rockets a year. And he will have rockets flying every day. Astra carried out the first and only successful delivery of cargo into orbit in its history only in 2021.

The other two companies described in the book have a story not so reminiscent of a crime novel, but, nevertheless, it is no less vivid. In general, the book is a great read for anyone who wants to find out what space startups really live by.

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