How a British rocket startup raced to evacuate its employees’ families from Ukraine

March 17, 2022, 5:54 PM UTC

Volodymyr Levykin normally spends his days thinking about how to get satellites safely into space. He is the founder and chief executive of Skyrora, a Scottish startup that is building rockets to loft micro and nano satellites into orbit from the U.K.’s new spaceport in the Shetland Islands. The company will power those rockets with a new propellent it developed from unrecycled waste plastic that’s more environmentally-friendly than traditional rocket fuel. A first launch is planned for late this year.

But for the past two weeks, Levykin and many of his employees have spent more time worrying about how to get the families of their co-workers safely out of Ukraine.

Levykin is originally from Ukraine, although he is now a British citizen and has spent decades living in the U.S. and the U.K. working in technology and internet businesses, including several online dating sites. Levykin founded Skyrora in 2017 based on the idea that the advent of much smaller satellites, new A.I.-based data analytic capabilities, and new kinds of rocket engines and fuels meant there was an opportunity for private companies to democratize access to space. He and his partners have self-financed the startup, along with grants from the U.K. and European Space Agency.

As a Ukrainian, Levykin knew that there was a wellspring of rocket know-how in the Ukrainian city of Dnipro. Located 250 miles southeast of Kyiv, the city had a population of close to 1 million people before the war started. Scientists and engineers based there built many of the Soviet Union’s space rockets, and the city’s Dnipropetrovsk National University is known for its strong aeronautical engineering department. The city is also home to the Yuzhnoye Design Office, the Ukrainian company world famous for its Zenit rocket, which Elon Musk named as his favorite beyond those made by his own SpaceX. So when Levykin founded Skyrora, he recruited rocket engineers from Dnipro for their technical skills and because they’re many times less expensive to employ than their counterparts in the U.S. or Western Europe.

Photo of Skyrora employees posing next to the company's Skylark L rocket.
Skyrora’s employees pose next to the company’s Skylark L rocket which can be used to loft nano satellites into orbit.
Courtesy of Skyrora

Skyrora employs 80 engineers and back-office employees—about half of its workforce—in an office and industrial workspace in Dnipro. Researchers in Dnipro analyze trajectory data from test launches—all of which have taken place in Iceland—and manage back-end functions like IT support and website maintenance. Once employees in Dnipro perfect a manufacturing method, Skyrora builds its rockets at its facilities in Scotland.

Despite warnings from the U.S. and other Western governments that Russia was preparing to invade Ukraine, Levykin says that he and most of his Ukrainian employees did not expect Russian President Vladimir Putin to go to war. Russia had built up troops on Ukraine’s borders in a similar fashion in 2015 and not attacked. “This was seen by us as what they did when they wanted attention from Mr. Biden,” Levykin says. “They assemble troops and create this threat. Until the last moment we thought it would just be a threat.”

This time, it was a threat Putin acted on.

When Russia invaded, seven of Skyrora’s Ukrainian employees were visiting the company’s offices in Edinburgh, Scotland. They gathered on the factory floor in stunned disbelief, some of them in tears, Levykin recalls, his own voice choked with emotion. Back in Dnipro, there was also disbelief. That first night, many had awoken to air raid sirens as Russian missiles struck an airport near the city. In the morning, they watched television news reports of missiles and shells falling on other cities throughout the country and Russian armored columns rolling across the border. Levykin himself learned of the invasion when his brother woke him up with a phone call from Ukraine at 5 a.m. “I cannot believe it has happened,” Levykin says. “For the past three weeks, it has been just like a bad dream.”

When Russia invaded, Levykin says he immediately laid out priorities for his Ukrainian staff: family first, country second, and the company a distant third. The Ukrainian employees visiting Edinburgh when Russia attacked were desperate to get back to Ukraine to look after their families. But Levykin advised against it. “I said, ‘Stay here, and we will do our best to move your families abroad,’” he says.

Photo of Skyrora CEO Volodymyr Levykin standing in front of a rocket engine.
Volodymyr Levykin, Skyrora’s founder and CEO, pictured in happier days standing in front of a rocket engine.
Photo courtesy of Skyrora

Levykin tasked Skyrora’s human resources department with figuring out how to make good on that pledge. On the first day of the invasion, some employees’ family members drove themselves to Western Ukraine or Poland. “I said, ‘please, judge for yourself, you know who your relatives are, whether they can move, what kind of animals you have and whether they can come with you,’” Levykin says.

But the company soon realized the roads were “chaotic,” Levykin says. Rumors swirled about which routes were safe and which were under attack by Russian forces. “There were too many cars on the road and it started to create huge traffic jams,” Levykin says.

The company began calling Ukrainian bus companies to move employees’ family members to Poland in larger groups. (Relocating people to Western Ukraine had become impossible because all accommodation there was booked.) Because humanitarian groups and other companies were also trying to organize refugee buses, Skyrora had to phone dozens of bus companies before it found one that had vehicles available.

The first Skyrora-sponsored bus took seven families to Poland. Then, Skyrora teamed up with other technology companies with staff in Dnipro to share the cost and logistics of hiring more buses. So far, it’s helped arrange five buses that have evacuated about 200 people to Poland. Among those Levykin had to convince to make the trip were his own 85-year-old parents, who lived in Zaporizhzia. “This is the second time they have to move because of war,” he says. The first time was when they were children in World War II. “Who would have thought they would have to do it again at 85?” (In the end, Levykin’s parents decided they did not want to flee all the way to Poland, choosing instead to stay in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv.)

Some employees had extended family members trapped in areas of the country already occupied by Russia. Unfortunately, Levykin says, it was too dangerous for those people to evacuate.

About 20 staff members had left Dnipro before the invasion, and some female employees have left since, but the majority of Skyrora’s Dnipro-based male employees remain in the city.

At the start of the war, Ukraine imposed martial law, barring all males between ages 18 and 60 from exiting the country. Even if they could leave, Levykin says, they wouldn’t. All of them want to stay to fight the Russians, he says. Some have joined the Ukrainian military. Many more have offered to enlist in the volunteer militia Ukraine has assembled to resist the invasion. But the militia units have received so many volunteers they have waiting lists since the government can’t train and equip them all at once.

While waiting to be called up, Skyrora’s employees continue to work. “From the first day, the factory was fully functional, and it still is,” Levykin says.

Those doing data analysis or back office functions are working from home. Those fabricating and testing materials for Skyrora’s rockets, including work on the company’s “Ecoscene” rocket fuel made from waste plastic, are still operating in the company’s Dnipro workshop. But Levykin says that the company has paused any new projects at the workshop.

At times, Levykin says, employees are hiding in bomb shelters every few hours as air raid sirens sound.

So far, most of those sirens have been false alarms. After an air strike on the airport on the night of the invasion, things were quiet in Dnipro until last Thursday when Russian missiles struck the city again. They destroyed a shoe factory and some residential buildings, according to news reports. It’s been quiet since then, but analysts believe Russian troops will want to capture Dnipro to link Russian units invading from the north, around Kharkiv, with units advancing from Crimea in the south. The tactic would entrap a large portion of the Ukrainian military in a pocket in the eastern part of the country, and cut it off from retreating towards Kyiv.

The mood of the Ukrainian workers changes by the day and the hour, Levykin says. “Your mood goes up and down,” he says. “The best solution is to just focus on daily routines. That is what I have told my team to do.”

Back in Edinburgh, Skyrora organized truckloads of humanitarian goods to be sent to Ukraine. And Levykin is trying to extend the visas of the Ukrainian staff who were visiting the company’s headquarters when the war broke out. Meanwhile, Skyrora’s U.K.-based staff has taken on much of the work normally done by teams in Dnipro.

Levykin says it has been intense, with every day seeming like a month and the team working almost around the clock, seven days a week. At least working is better than just sitting and watching the news, he says. “It relieves some of the stress,” he says.

Katie Miller, who works in marketing for Skyrora remotely from Australia, says it has been difficult to have colleagues in such distress. “Their safety is our No. 1 priority,” she says. “But we are trying to keep them busy on usual routines as much as possible.”

Despite the outbreak of the war, Skyrora managed to successfully test new engines for its rockets in Scotland on schedule. The engine test was broadcast over Zoom to employees in Dnipro and around the world. “That was really a tribute to the Ukrainian team,” Levykin says.

When Skyrora’s engine successfully fired, a cheer went up from all of the assembled engineers, as well as those watching remotely. “But these are engineers,” Levykin says. “So yes, they cheered a bit when the engine didn’t blow up, but then they really only cheered three days later when they had analyzed the data from the test.”

Still, the engine test was an uplifting moment in what had otherwise been a brutal three weeks. “The Ukrainians were delighted to go back to normal, even if only for one hour, and fully focus on the engine test,” Levykin says.

He says the company is still on track to have its inaugural orbital launch later this year. “But first, we have to win this war,” he says.

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