Houston Press has a long, sad look at one of the more curious NewSpace projects, Excalibur Almaz, and the man behind it, Art Dula.
Excalbur Almaz is a company based in the Isle of Man whose goal is to refurbish a couple of Soviet-era Almaz space stations and four crew return capsule for some type of space mission. The company has gone through numerous iterations, from space tourism to commercial space station to NASA commercial crew to deep space mining facility.
So far they haven’t raised enough money for any of these ideas, although the company has generated a couple of investor lawsuits alleging fraud, one dismissed and the other still pending.
There are a couple very troubling allegations that are chronicled in the story. One is that the sales agreement between Excalbur Almaz and the Russian seller stipulated that the technology was not to be modified for space flight. This is alleged in a lawsuit filed by Japanese investor Takafumi Horie.
Most strikingly, Horie alleged that, after snooping around, he learned that the contract between Excalibur and the Russian entity that sold the spaceships to Dula expressly stipulated that the equipment was not to be modified for flight.
This contention is seconded by Excalibur’s former executive vice president, Leroy Chiao. A former astronaut who flew three shuttle missions and commanded a 2004 International Space Station expedition, Chiao entered the private sector in 2005, and, intrigued by Dula’s dream, joined Excalibur. Unfortunately, he told the Press, he and other Excalibur directors did not have the full story of Dula’s contract with the Russians.
Around 2010, he says, Dula’s assistant, Anat Friedman, who is a co-defendant in Horie’s suit, “accidentally copied all the senior folks on [an emailed] copy of the import license” for two Almaz capsules that were shipped from the Isle of Man to Galveston.
Chiao alleges that the license indicated that the spacecraft were “for display and evaluation purposes. In other words, [they] could be taken apart and examined. But it certainly didn’t say [they] could be refurbished for flight.”
He says that he and other executives approached Dula, who “insisted that it was not a big deal; it was something that could be fixed easily. And so we said, ‘Fix it’…otherwise, what have we been doing all these years?”
According to Horie’s suit, Chiao and the company’s CFO, Richard Gruver, raised a fuss, but in the end, only Chiao left the company.
Horie also alleges that Dula and Excalibur Almaz then resorted to attempted bribery to remedy the problem.
Out of desperation, the lawsuit alleges, Dula and Friedman “purportedly attempted to get the Russians and [NPO Mash] to modify the sales contracts, thus admitting the deficiencies in legal rights, but that was never accomplished.” So, instead, Dula “made cash payments” to an NPO Mash officer to try to fix the contract.
“They were in effect cash payments made to a Russian government official and/or an agent of the Russian government in order to get a sales contract,” the suit alleges, which made the payments “a violation of the Foreign Corruption Practices Act.” (NPO Mash’s press office did not respond to email requests for comment.)
It should be noted that Horie doesn’t exactly have a clean record. He spent time in prison after he was convicted of fraud involving a business he owned in Japan.
Read the whole story. It’s a very interesting tale.