Firefly Aerospace's CEO Tom Markusic is refuting reports of questionable comments and ties between his company's biggest investor and shady, online hookup sites.
Journalists at the fact-checking site Snopes recently investigated a possible tie between Firefly Aerospace and a web of deceptive online dating sites. Additionally, following an interview with Markusic by Texas Monthly, the company and its leadership received online backlash and questioning. But, according to Markusic, these recent negative assumptions about him or the company are just a big misunderstanding.
"I don't believe everything that I read on the web," Markusic told Space.com in an interview.
Noosphere Ventures, Firefly's largest investor, released a full statement in response to the situation and refuting the claims made in the Snopes piece. "This is a manipulation," the statement reads. "The article twisted the facts. Noosphere Ventures projects and its C-level management have an impeccable reputation."
In 2018, NASA selected the Austin, Texas-based Firefly as one of the nine companies that would have the opportunity to bid on contracts to build lunar landers for missions to the moon under the agency's Artemis program. This coveted spot landed Firefly in a position to jockey for contracts that could be worth up to $2.6 billion over the next decade.
In response to the recent criticism of Firefly Aerospace, NASA told Space.com that "NASA is not aware of any illegal activity by Firefly Aerospace. The agency follows all federal procurement practices to ensure its business partnerships are within current laws and regulations."
Phoney dating sites?
According to the Snopes investigation, there's a fly in the ointment. To summarize, Firefly's largest investor, Noosphere Ventures, is a company that shares staff, an address and an office space with Together Networks, a company that maintains a number of the same websites as TopOffers.com, an international web of fake, deceptive dating websites with frequently misogynistic names (yes they're NSFW, no I will not be linking to them).
These sites use shady tactics to mislead people into signing up for recurring credit-card charges, and might be operating in potential violation of FTC regulations; specifically, a law named the Restore Online Shoppers' Confidence Act (ROSCA), according to the Snopes investigation into this possible relationship.
Snopes found that 194 of the 218 sites listed on TopOffers are either owned or operated by at least one company with some history and connection to Firefly Aerospace co-founder and board member Max Polyakov, who is also a managing partner at Noosphere Ventures and who co-founded the U.K.-based online dating site Cupid plc (a site that, in 2013, was accused of using "fake profiles" to deceive people online, tactics similar to those used by TopOffers, Snopes found).
Noosphere Ventures denies these claims laid out by Snopes, as they detail in their statement linked above.
In an interview with Space.com, Markusic asserted that he has had no awareness of any relationship between Firefly Aerospace and Together Networks and their affiliated, deceptive sites. While Noosphere Ventures shares an address with Together Networks, "my understanding is that Noosphere has a portfolio, an exclusive portfolio of tech companies, one of which is Firefly," Markusic said.
Noosphere is "focused on technology and, again, Firefly is completely independent and run by me," he said, adding that he has not observed any companies affiliated with Firefly acting in any nefarious ways.
"I would point out," he added, "that it's public knowledge that some of my business partners in the original founding of Firefly Space Systems have launched litigation against Firefly Aerospace wanting some remuneration for the success." Markusic emphasized that there is no evidence to support any interference in the public opinion of Firefly by these partners, but "the timing is pretty interesting."
All in all, Markusic finds the connection drawn between Firefly and this dating site network to be a stretch and irrelevant, as he emphasized that there was no connection.
"I run Firefly and I can tell you that Firefly is run with the highest ethical standards [and] extreme transparency with all stakeholders and customers," Markusic said, adding that the company is very serious about adhering to "all laws and all regulatory issues associated with being a U.S. aerospace company."
The other point of contention that online critics had of Firefly was of Markusic himself — specifically a quote attributed to Markusic in a 2019 interview with Texas Monthly.
In the quote, Markusc said about space-based observational technology that "it depends on what you want and how frequently you want it. And what region you're looking at. I mean, we can talk about real-time stuff — say, following your girlfriend, watching where her car is driving from space." To which Texas Monthly responded, "That's creepy."
To nobody's surprise, this quote did not go over very well with the public and it received significant criticism online and on social media. However, according to Markusic, the quote was taken out of context, and he finds the potential use of technology for these purposes "disturbing."
"That quote was taken out of context in a larger conversation that I was having with the interviewer immediately preceding that quote," Markusic told Space.com. "I had told the interviewer that, basically, although the advent of satellites is going to bring about all kinds of amazing opportunities, it will also bring about real privacy issues."
He added that the quote that was used in the article was simply an example of "a disturbing privacy issue … I was saying that there could be disturbing applications of this technology." The Texas Monthly confirmed that account of the conversation when contacted by Space.com.
Despite the recent criticism online, Markusic said Firefly is on track to launch its first rocket later this year. Recently (Feb. 4), Firefly announced that their Alpha launch vehicle would be used to launch a constellation of satellites for Satlantis. Additionally, in January, the company announced that its Alpha rocket will be used for launches with the Netherlands-based company Innovative Space Logistics B.V. (Isilaunch).
"We expect in the next six months to be on a launch pad," he said, adding that Firefly will have "a string of great announcements" coming soon.
Editor's Note: This article was updated to include statements from Noosphere Ventures.
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Chelsea “Foxanne” Gohd joined Space.com in 2018 and is now a Senior Writer, writing about everything from climate change to planetary science and human spaceflight in both articles and on-camera in videos. With a degree in Public Health and biological sciences, Chelsea has written and worked for institutions including the American Museum of Natural History, Scientific American, Discover Magazine Blog, Astronomy Magazine and Live Science. When not writing, editing or filming something space-y, Chelsea "Foxanne" Gohd is writing music and performing as Foxanne, even launching a song to space in 2021 with Inspiration4. You can follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd and @foxannemusic.