“Aerospace in Texas.” That phrase might immediately make you think of NASA and Houston, but don’t overlook Firefly Aerospace in Cedar Park.
Firefly CEO Tom Markusic chose to base his venture in Cedar Park because of Texas’s business friendliness and to take advantage of the booming opportunities in the greater Austin area. And business has been good.
In late 2018, NASA awarded a contract to Firefly for Commercial Lunar Payload Services. The contract’s goal is to acquire end-to-end commercial payload services between the Earth and the lunar surface.
Before founding Firefly Aerospace, Markusic served in a number of technical and leadership roles at aerospace companies, including Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin and SpaceX. He also was a civil servant at NASA and the U.S. Air Force, where he worked as a researcher and propulsion engineer.
Fiscal Notes sat down with Markusic to discuss his company, its NASA contract and the draw of Texas for a company like his.
Fiscal Notes: Can you explain a bit about the NASA contract Firefly was selected for in November 2018?
Tom Markusic: Firefly was selected as one of the nine awardees for the NASA Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) contract. This award allows Firefly to bid on future NASA task orders to deliver science payload to the surface of the Moon.
FN: What is the timeline or key milestones on the contract with NASA?
Markusic: The initial task order was to complete the Payload User’s Guide for our Genesis Lunar Lander. We expect NASA to release a new task order in the near future for delivery services. Firefly will propose a mission to use our Genesis lander, which is based on internet protocol developed for the Beresheet Lunar Lander, in partnership with the International Association for Identification. This will be the highest Technology Readiness Level commercial lander out of the current companies in NASA’s CLPS awardees.
FN: What other projects is Firefly working on?
Markusic: The primary project Firefly is currently working is our Alpha launch vehicle. The Alpha will have a capacity of 1,000 kg to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and is the highest capacity/lowest cost per kilogram launch vehicle in its class in an advanced stage of development. The first launch of the Alpha is expected in first quarter of 2020, and there has been significant commercial interest in Alpha from customers throughout the world.
FN: Has it ever been a challenge finding the workforce for such a specialized company?
Markusic: We are fortunate that Firefly is working on multiple exciting projects that have drawn some of the best folks in the aerospace industry to our team. We currently have over 240 employees in the U.S. and over 300 employees worldwide.
FN: As an entrepreneur in aerospace, what value does NASA hold in relation to your industry?
Markusic: NASA is a valued partner to Firefly Aerospace. We look forward to not only launching science payloads to the moon for NASA, but also to provide NASA launch services with our Alpha and Beta launch vehicles.
FN: How did you choose Texas — and Cedar Park, in particular — as the location for Firefly’s headquarters?
Markusic: We chose to move to Texas due to its very business-friendly nature. We chose the Austin area in Texas because many of employees come to Firefly from out of state, and we feel the area provides an excellent quality of life for our employees and their families. Also, the job market is very strong, so our employees’ significant others have great opportunities to find employment. We worked closely with the economic development team in Cedar Park, and they did a great job in convincing us to come to Cedar Park and have been a strong partner.
FN: Your company’s motto is “making space for everyone.” Can you explain what that phrase means to you?
Markusic: Space is the next frontier of the information revolution and is a fertile ground for commercial development, whether by large heritage aerospace companies or by aspiring startup companies. By lowering the price of access to space and by allowing dedicated missions to specific orbits, Firefly allows many people to participate in the new space race.
FN: You have an exciting work history. How does being CEO at Firefly rate in comparison with your past positions?
Markusic: Firefly is the greatest challenge of my career — and the most rewarding. I grew up in Ohio as the son of a blue-collar auto worker. My personal belief is that we must create the jobs for the next generation, and Firefly is doing that, whether they are engineering jobs at our Cedar Park location, manufacturing jobs at our Briggs facility, or future mass production facility in Florida.
Space exploration is serious business in Texas. Because companies such as Firefly and the state as whole benefit substantially from the aerospace industry, Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar recently visited NASA facilities in Texas as part of his Good for Texas Tour. To learn more about NASA’s impact on the state economy, visit the Comptroller’s Statewide Economic Data webpage.