Selling Space: Entrepreneurs Offer Dreams and Schemes in the Hope of Making a Buck Off the Cosmos
Art Dula is one of the country’s first “space lawyers.”
It’s July 2010, and one of the world’s first “space lawyers” is accepting the prestigious “Pioneer of NewSpace Award” from the Space Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group dedicated to space exploration and settlement.
Art Dula isn’t just a pioneer in space law — he’s a bona fide spaceship owner, with six decommissioned Soviet military craft sitting under tarps in an airplane hangar on the Isle of Man. Unlike other NewSpace companies, Dula’s company, Excalibur, owns craft that have actually been in space. And he plans on taking them back any day now.
Fast-forward four years, and Dula is not just a NewSpace pioneer, he’s a defendant in a $49 million fraud suit calling him a con artist with a warehouse full of antiquated space junk that was never meant to get off the ground. It’s the second time an investor has accused him of fraud — a Houston woman, Donna Beck, previously sued him for allegedly duping her into an asteroid-mining scam. Beck and Dula agreed to dismiss the case, with prejudice, in early 2014. In the years after Dula accepted his prestigious award, his space capsules have been to London’s Parliament Square, Saudi Arabia and an auction house in Brussels. They just haven’t been to space.
The man who would sue Dula, Japanese billionaire Takafumi Horie, was actually considered a con man himself in his native country, where he was convicted of manipulating stock prices in his Internet company and sentenced to 21 months in prison.
But on this night in Silicon Valley, Dula is enjoying the adulation of his NewSpace peers, and charming them with a story about his role in the country’s first privatized rocket launch, in 1982. The rocket, called the Conestoga, could be cleared for takeoff only after an alligator named Harvey was lured out of a nearby cooling pond by someone dropping a bunch of chicken bones. This is how, just before the historic leap into the world of privatized space travel, a flight dispatcher came to utter the words “You’ve got alligator clearance,” Dula says.
Hundreds of reporters flocked to the sparsely populated township of Matagorda (known mainly for its fishing) to watch Dula’s company, Space Services Incorporated, launch a creaky Minuteman rocket carrying 40 pounds of water 195 miles into the air, clearing just over 300 miles before plopping into the Gulf of Mexico. History was made.
Dula’s a portly, bald, bespectacled man whose voice sounds uncannily like that of Hank Hill from King of the Hill, but unlike that character’s love of propane and propane accessories, Dula’s passion lies with the stars. He’s like a science fiction geek who never outgrew childlike wonder, which made him the perfect choice to be esteemed sci-fi author Robert A. Heinlein’s attorney and, later, his estate’s literary executor. In this capacity, Dula oversees the Heinlein Prize, a $500,000 honorarium for people whose creativity “advances [Heinlein’s] dream of humanity’s future in space.” It literally pays to know Art Dula.
Dula wasn’t happy to settle for the historic yet modest sojourn of the Conestoga, which is why, 23 years later, in 2005, Dula founded Excalibur and bought a fleet of decommissioned Russian military spacecraft from the 1970s, which he planned to refurbish and use for lunar tourism and/or extracting minerals from near-Earth asteroids.
Upon accepting his NewSpace Pioneer Award, Dula told the audience, “We’re going to take some Russian space capsules and put some Western technology in them...and we’re going to launch them, and we’re going to make money.”
Space is just a giant, untapped revenue stream, and asteroids aren’t something to be blown up, Armageddon-style — they’re to be mined. Dula explains that an asteroid called Apophis is more than a mile wide and chock-full of nickel-iron, essentially making it a $10 billion money order hurtling through the cosmos.
It was a grand plan and tempting proposition, or at least it was for the investors who wound up suing Dula and his disco-era fleet.
In retrospect, it might seem odd that Dula’s objectives, which once involved literally planting a flag on an asteroid and claiming it for his company, didn’t raise a red flag for investors. But such bold designs are perfectly in keeping with the world of NewSpace, where, at international conventions, highly intelligent people can discuss things like space elevators and establishing Martian colonies in underground lava tubes without fear that anyone will bust out butterfly nets.
It’s a world where no claim is too far-fetched and there is no public expression of skepticism. If it’s true that, in space, no one can hear you scream, then in NewSpace, no one can see your bullshit.
Excalibur has never taken its capsules to space, but the company has produced some fancy promotional videos.
By the early 1980s, Dula was building a reputation as a space lawyer, applying his knowledge of complex patent and intellectual property law to the aerospace industry. He also wrote papers about the law as it would apply to commercial space activity — how one could own an asteroid, say, or carve out property rights on the moon. In a 1985 paper, he wrote that “outer space is the latest spiritual and economic frontier to challenge free enterprise capitalism.”
An Arlington, Virginia native with a law degree from Tulane, Dula cofounded or consulted with a bevy of aerospace companies, including one that manufactured cargo carriers for the space shuttle and the International Space Station. He was especially adept at obtaining the necessary regulatory permits, which is one of the ways he got involved with the Conestoga launch that he reminisced upon when he accepted his NewSpace Pioneer Award.
His story about the alligator, though, actually comes not from the Conestoga but from its doomed predecessor, Percheron, which blew up on the launchpad the year before. The explosion shot the nose cone 16 yards in the air and started a small grass fire. In contemporaneous reports on the Conestoga, Dula is barely mentioned, and it’s unclear whether he was present at the launch. (After 30-odd years, it’s understandable if Dula inadvertently conflated stories about the launches, but at least he could’ve gotten the alligator’s name right — it was Ralph, not Harvey.)
Dula’s biggest coup came in 1987, when his company, Space Commerce, struck a deal with Glavcosmos, the newly formed marketing arm of the Russian space agency, for exclusive rights to market Soviet space stuff in the United States.
According to news reports from this period, U.S. companies had cut back or ceased building expendable rockets to carry satellites into orbit in the wake of the 1982 shuttle launch. They expected to hitch satellites or other payloads to the shuttle.
After the 1986 Challenger disaster, NASA suspended shuttle operations, which caused a resurgence in demand for expendable rockets.
Dula and his Space Commerce partner, Bill Wirin, hoped to fill that void by selling American companies the rights to rockets blasting off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, in the steppes of Kazakhstan. According to a Space Commerce brochure, these rocket deals came with “virtually no restrictions and at breathtakingly low prices.”
But nothing was off the table — Dula and Wirin were eager to sell anything, including advertising space on Russian spaceships, as detailed in the company’s brochures: “Imagine a trio of cosmonauts floating about their space cabin, sipping from cans of your company’s beverage while a Russian-accented version of your product jingle plays in the background.”
Space Commerce hoped to rustle up business at the 1989 Paris Air Show, setting up a booth in the Soviet pavilion, where the company hawked its brochures and T-shirts.
“I expect money in the bank in 90 days,” Wirin told a reporter for Spy, who was there to observe the weirdness. Wirin had all kinds of advertising ideas — Ronald McDonald chomping down fries aboard Mir, the world’s first modular space station. Or maybe cosmonauts floating around in Adidas.
Not everyone in the States shared Dula’s and Wirin’s enthusiasm, though. Dula told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1988 that he’d received death threats; people had threatened to kill his kids and burn crosses in his yard.
One aerospace executive who headed his company’s commercial rocket division lamented to the paper, “There’s a lot of people on the fringes of space with a hot desire to be involved and with an inadequate intellectual capacity, and [Dula] is one of them.”
Things took a strange turn when Space Commerce allowed a Houston start-up called Space Travel Incorporated to operate a sweepstakes whose prize was a seat on the Mir. People could call a 900 number at $2.99 a pop, as many times as they wanted, to register to win. The story went global, and the hotline received so many calls that it temporarily crashed.
Unfortunately for Space Travel, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office believed the contest looked a whole lot like an unlicensed lottery, and two of the co-founders were arrested and charged with running an illegal sweepstakes. The charges were later dropped, and the co-founders agreed to stop the contest. (Space Commerce was never charged or implicated in the sweepstakes incident.)
Dula and Wirin subsequently announced that they had closed the deal on their own, signing a contract worth more than $12 million with an unnamed American company that reserved a seat for an unnamed employee. Confidentiality was part of the contract, they said. That story, too, went global — but, curiously, there was never a follow-up, and there is no public record of such a deal coming to fruition.
Speaking with the Houston Press in May, Wirin says he has no recollection of his former company’s selling a seat on the Mir, or of the sweepstakes fiasco, even though his name appeared extensively in media reports at the time. When the Press shared a copy of a New York Times story in which he’s quoted, he said, “At least they spelled my name right.”
He said that his five years running Space Commerce with Dula were exciting, just not profitable. In the end, he said, they sold the rights for only one rocket launch.
“We were in and out of Moscow about every six weeks to two months for about a week or ten days, trying to find odds and mods that could be sold” out of the Soviet Union, says Wirin, who quit Space Commerce after five years to run a bed and breakfast in Alaska.
When Dula accepted his NewSpace Pioneer Award, he looked back fondly on the rocket sale that Wirin mentioned. Space Commerce sold the rocket rights to Hughes Aircraft, but Hughes was never able to get U.S. clearance. In three weeks, Dula said, he bought the Proton rocket ride from the Russians for $20 million and flipped it to Hughes for $23 million.
Dula couldn’t help but chuckle when he described what happened when Hughes asked for its money back. He said he told the company, “Did you read the contract you signed? You don’t get all the money back.”
The Russians made money, too. Dula said he told them, “You make money if I make money. You don’t have to do anything; you just have to sign a good contract. I’m pleased to say that that got me into every Rolodex in the Soviet Union.”
Delighting in his story, Dula still chuckled as he explained, “That’s how I made the first profit…I stole it from Hughes.”
The Isle of Man is a 31-mile-long blip in the Irish Sea, nestled between Northern Ireland and England. It has a population of roughly 85,000, and its flag is three disembodied white legs stitched together in a nightmarish pinwheel set against a blood-red background, the limbs looking like they’re forever trying to kick a soccer ball that’s not there. Its most noteable exports are processed shellfish and the Bee Gees. Until about 2014, if headlines were to be believed, it was a major contender in the race to commercialize space travel, ranked in some circles as the fifth-most-likely nation to put the next person on the moon.
The man who was paid to put the Isle of Man in those headlines lives in Seabrook, just south of Houston, and is married to a former astronaut, Nicole Stott. His name is Chris Stott, and he’s an Isle of Man native (they’re called “Manx”) whose company, ManSat, had a public relations contract with the Manx government to brand the tiny isle as a hotspot for commercial space exploration.
It worked like gangbusters, at least in the UK., where major newspapers essentially ran press releases touting the island’s booming space industry, which included a subsequent Dula venture Excalibur — where Stott was the CEO. (He quit in 2008 for what he told the Press were “personal reasons.”)
Through increased brand awareness, the Isle of Man was able to position itself as an unlikely media darling. A 2012 Financial Times story typified the coverage, including glowing quotes from Stott explaining how the island was poised to become the ‘Venetian Republic of Space,’ reflecting the role that the Italian city-state once played in global trade.”
No longer just a windswept tax dodge, the nation would now be known as the “Island of Innovation,” offering a gateway to the stars through its website, Spaceisle.com, featuring a video introduction by a woman who could double as Pam from The Office.
“I’m Katya, and I’m your guide to the Isle of Man’s online home in space,” Manx-Pam says, as faux-futuristic beep-boop-bip synthesizer music blurts in the background. “…For people working in space commerce, we can offer some unique advantages.”
In 2006, according to court records, Dula certainly offered Donna Beck something unique: the chance to get in on the ground floor of a company called Excalibur Mines, which would exploit the untapped moneymaking potential of asteroids. (Beck did not respond to multiple requests for comment, and her former attorney declined to comment.)
According to Beck’s later lawsuit, Dula first approached her and her husband, since deceased, aboard a luxury cruise ship that was hosting a new space conference. To the Becks, it seemed as if Dula knew all the right people and had all the right connections. He even had actual spacecraft — four reusable re-entry capsules and two space stations from a formerly top-secret Soviet program code-named Almaz — Russian for “diamond.” The Almaz program was the military twin of the civilian space program, Salyut.
When the Soviets launched Almaz craft throughout the 1970s and into the early 1980s, they were explained publicly as being part of the Salyut program. One of the space stations was equipped with a very crude cannon. Excalibur literature claims that its particular Almaz equipment could withstand up to 15 more launches. The outer hulls just needed some paint and a fancy Excalibur logo; only the computerized guts needed updating.
The Becks “were hooked by Dula’s charm and the plan presented…to mine asteroids for precious metals and the profits it would bring,” the suit alleges. Dula allegedly told them he already had $50 million, and they could become part of the magic for a comparatively modest $300,000.
But the Becks didn’t bite until after a July 2006 dinner honoring Heinlein, where Dula presented the first $500,000 Heinlein Prize. The couple were impressed by the display, as well as the former astronauts and NASA officials in attendance, the suit alleges. Before they cut a check, Dula asked them to make it out not to Excalibur Mines — which would never be formed — but to something called Excalibur Almaz USA. Dula then formed a company in the Isle of Man called Excalibur Exploration, where the Becks’ shares went.
It’s unclear how Dula described the technical aspects and wealth potential of asteroid mining to the Becks, but in a 2015 study about “space mineral resources,” Dula writes that the nickel contained on one asteroid discovered in 1986 “is worth about three times the entire national debt of the United States in 2012.”
The study, which contains many more exclamation points than the average research compendium, states that metallic asteroids are chock-full of gold and platinum, and “it follows that a single small metallic asteroid about 200 meters across could be worth of the order of $100 billion dollars [sic]. Thus, in addition to being metaphorical scientific gold mines, some asteroids may prove to be literal gold mines as well!”
But the study also emphasizes the importance of recovering ice “from lunar craters or Martian sub-surface, to provide fuel, water and oxygen.” In fact, the study notes, “water will be the currency of space!”
Here’s why: Fuel, consisting largely of water, is the heaviest component of a rocket launching into space. If a government or corporation wants to launch something into space, it will jump at the chance to lower fuel costs. Enter the traveling water station: a ship that would extract water from celestial bodies and sell it to other ships in space, so they could refuel. In addition to providing such an orbiting water-merchant, companies could also establish fixed fueling stations on the moon or elsewhere, sort of like lunar Valeros.
Such grand plans are hardly unique in new space. Jim Logan, a doctor who served as NASA’s chief of flight medicine and was project manager for the Space Station Medical Facility, is a new space advocate, but says the community has its share of folks who tend to get carried away. In the community, they’re known as “space cadets.”
These people have broad knowledge, it’s just not deep – they lack “a fundamental appreciation of how difficult these concepts are to implement. And so what that leads to is a situation in which the line between being a dreamer and being a huckster gets pretty thin,” Logan told the Press in an email. He believes in things like asteroid mining, but, unlike Dula and others, he doesn’t think the technology is right around the corner.
Logan added that “This is the kind of hype that needs to be dialed back by the pro-space community….and I say that at the risk of coming across as an old curmudgeon, albeit one with extensive operational experience.”
Alas, for Beck, her investment in the mining venture went nowhere.
After four years with no clear developments, the suit alleges, Beck asked for an accounting of Excalibur Exploration’s finances. She asked for the minutes of board meetings. She asked for proof that the company actually owned Russian spacecraft, and that it had permission to modify them for flight. When Dula denied her requests, she asked for her money back — another request Dula denied.
Ultimately, Beck came to suspect that there was never any intent to form a company, and that all the Excalibur iterations were merely shells under which Dula could hide other people’s money. She originally named Stott in the suit, but dropped him after she came to believe that he, too, was misled by Dula.
“Dula and his colleagues made a practice of preying on wealthy people by promising them that they would be part of a grand new adventure,” the suit alleges. But the money just went toward “international travel and attendance at conferences and unsolicited meetings with aerospace contractors.”
By the time Beck had filed suit in 2012, Dula switched Excalibur’s focus from mining to private space exploration. Dula announced that the company would be selling tickets aboard one of the Almaz capsules for $100 million. Trips would start as early as 2015.
“This is a private expedition; it’s not tourism,” Dula told a British TV reporter. “It’s like the expeditions to the south seas years ago that made Britain so rich; we’re hoping to do it again.”
Excalibur was going to put Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic to shame: Unlike the British playboy’s plan to put paying customers in orbit for seven minutes and 60 miles, Excalibur’s clients would pay for a four- to eight-month excursion. They would train extensively, taking a capsule up to a space station that Dula described to the Guardian as “about as big as a small apartment,” where they would then control the craft on their own. Dula said he’d commissioned a study by the marketing consulting firm of Futron, which scoured the world for a client base and found that exactly 29 people on the planet could afford both a ticket and eight months off work. At $100 million each, it wasn’t bad. Of course, the cost would decrease over time and Excalibur could cater to a less-elite crowd.
On top of that, Excalibur had entered into something called an “Unfunded Space Act Agreement” with NASA, in which the space agency would provide the company with “limited technical assistance.” In 2009, NASA had created the Commercial Crew Development program to spark advances in the private sector, and offered a shot at a grant. Although Excalibur didn’t win the grant, it touted its agreement with NASA as an unambiguous stamp of approval and an implication of its flight-readiness. The chance to plug the words “NASA” and “agreement” into press releases was a boon — but the agreement stated that any such press releases had to be approved by the agency.
And, at a reception in the Excalibur airport hangar in the Isle of Man in 2012, Dula went so far as to call the company a “NASA contractor.”
It was a bold proclamation that seems to violate the spirit of a major section in the paperwork dictating how Excalibur would be able to publicize the agreement. The space agency didn’t want any confusion, so, in perfect legalese, the agreement states that Excalibur will not use “the letters ‘NASA’ to “convey any impression that such product or service has the authorization, support sponsorship, or endorsement of NASA.”
As for a remark by Dula about NASA officials inspecting the company’s hardware, a NASA spokesperson told the Press, “During one of the design reviews, a company representative showed the capsule to NASA officials, but the NASA officials made no conclusion regarding the quality or condition of the hardware.”
Still, Dula told the crowd gathered in the hangar that “NASA’s had a good hard look at our hardware, at our planning, at our concept of operations.”
He explained that one of Excalibur’s partners, a Russian Ministry of Defense contractor, NPO MASH, which had actually built the fleet, was “ready to produce…all of the critical equipment for all of these manned spaceships.” This included a proven escape system, which, Dula claimed, SpaceX “hoped to have in three years for $500 million. We have it now.”
When NASA and Excalibur inked their agreement, it was with the understanding that Excalibur could not share technical information with “Russian entities” without prior approval, and the entities could not be on a national watch list. At the time, NPO MASH wasn’t, but it was added in 2014, and it’s unclear what impact, if any, this would have on Excalibur’s future dealings with the company.
To drum up more publicity for Excalibur’s $100 million tickets for space expeditions, Dula sent one of the Almaz capsules to London for outdoor display at the Royal Aeronautical Society, in Parliament Square.
This seemed to tick off Beck, who noted in her suit that the capsule taking up real estate near Parliament was supposed to have been planting flags on asteroids and making her rich.
“With the benefit of hindsight,” the suit alleges, “it is now clear that Dula’s commercial space enterprise was a sham and fraud from the beginning.”
In 2014, a year after his release from prison, Takafumi Horie — Excalibur’s biggest investor to date — stumbled upon a trade paper article about an Excalibur Almaz space capsule sold at auction, and came to the same conclusion.
Acollege dropout who started the Internet service provider Livedoor when he was 23, Horie expanded the company into a wildly successful venture via a series of hostile takeovers. He eschewed the standard salaryman suits and wore T-shirts and jeans, dated models, drove a Ferrari and frequently popped up on game shows. He was affectionately known as “Horiemon,” a nickname he earned for his peculiar resemblance to a time-traveling, large-headed robot-cat from a popular Japanese manga series called Doraemon.
Horie met Dula in 2005, and when Dula talked about his connection with the Russian space sector, Horie was captivated. He formed a company called Japan Space Dream and pumped $49 million into what was supposed to be a joint venture with Excalibur, according to a memorandum filed in Horie’s subsequent lawsuit against Dula, now pending before the Texas Supreme Court.
Japan Space Dream was rudely interrupted in 2006, when Japanese authorities raided Horie’s home and office and accused him of artificially inflating Livedoor’s value and misleading investors. He denied the charges, but was found guilty in 2007 and began his sentence in 2011. As part of a settlement agreement hashed out before he went to prison, Horie transferred all his shares in Japan Space Dream to former ?Livedoor stockholders, who then sold the shares to Excalibur for an exceedingly modest $475,000.
During his 21-month incarceration, Horie’s creativity never dwindled. From his cell, he managed to get friends to run his Twitter, and he published two books of manga detailing his life behind bars. According to a story in the Economist, this included “cleaning pubic hair out of toilets, being farted at by senior prisoners he had to tend to, and having to surrender porn magazines to prison guards.”
But according to the lawsuit he would file, in 2014, he came across an article detailing the travel of an Almaz space capsule — one of a fleet he’d invested $49 million in — from the Isle of Man to a pit stop in Saudi Arabia, then on to an exhibit in a Berlin art gallery housed in a former school for Jewish girls. From there, it went to Brussels, where it was featured as almost a kitschy remnant from a bygone era and auctioned off for 1.3 million Belgian francs. This was not how Horie had envisioned his beloved Japan Space Dream.
To accompany the auction, a history of the capsule — and the Almaz program in general — was written up by Bernd Hoefer, who is identified on Excalibur’s website as the “adviser for finance and capital formation in the Middle East.” (Hoefer declined to comment for this story.)
Hoefer, who runs a technology consulting firm in the Kingdom of Bahrain, wrote that the capsule “has had a remarkable history” and stands as “an important witness in world politics.” There was no mention of its being part of the backbone of a NASA commercial development agreement, or of news stories about Dula using it to sell tickets to the moon.
Horie filed his lawsuit in Harris County District Court in November 2014, accusing Dula and two Excalibur colleagues of fraud. 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. (Gruver did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.)
Per Horie’s lawsuit, Dula did try to fix the problem — through bribery.
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.)
Another alleged flaw in the plan, not mentioned in the lawsuit, was pointed out by George Abbey, who directed the Johnson Space Center from 1996 to 2001 and is a senior fellow for space policy at Rice University’s James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy. He is also — to his surprise — listed as an adviser on Excalibur’s website.
Abbey told the Press that he didn’t consider himself an adviser, and had met with Dula and other Excalibur folks only “one or two times” years ago, and that he “didn’t really have any great influence on it after that.” He says that he should “probably be removed” from the site.
During his brief involvement with Excalibur, says Abbey, Russian engineers were not offering any technical support in refurbishing the fleet.
“The spacecraft was designed and built and operated by the Russians,” Abbey says. “So the Russians knew how to operate it…You really need to have them playing a primary role…I and other people brought that up, and Art didn’t agree with us.”
He adds, “I don’t think whatever the Russians gave him, they weren’t, to my knowledge, flyable.”
However, Jim Oberg, who is also a veteran of JSC, where he worked on the shuttle program, and who is frequently a media consultant on private space exploration and is an expert on the history of the Soviet space program, told the Press that people should not put too much stock in import/export licenses.
Oberg, who’s known Dula for nearly 40 years, describes him as “sort of the Daniel Boone of space commerce.” He says the idea that Dula would intentionally mislead anyone “is preposterous.”
Oberg says he was never involved in Excalibur and doesn’t know anything about that company’s contract. But he says that, in his experience, “You can’t judge the status or the flyability of Russian space hardware based on any Western analogies…and you can’t also judge the flyability by what you say on a bill of sale.”
He adds, “There are different requirements to get things into and out of countries…I’ve watched a number of deals just crater because some defense export board decided that a 20-mile-long wire tether for a space station was a ‘strategic weapon.” Bottom line: “You say what you have to on the paper to get it out of the country.”
Michael Levin, who is defending Excalibur in Horie’s lawsuit, said that Dula, Friedman and Excalibur executive vice president Buckner Hightower would not be available for interview because of the pending litigation.
In an email, Levin stated: “After his conviction but before his incarceration, Mr. Horie transferred all of his interest in Excalibur to his former company in order to settle a lawsuit brought by that company resulting from the matters relating to his conviction. He also executed a written agreement where he provided a full release to Excalibur and its principals and affiliates….Excalibur and its principals will not otherwise comment on specific facts relating to any dispute with Mr. Horie other than to assert that his allegations have no merit, and that these meritless allegations, if brought at all, can only be brought in the courts of the Isle of Man as required by written agreement.”
After two years, the lawsuit remains in limbo. There have been no depositions, no discovery and no substantial developments. None of that will happen until the Texas Supreme Court decides where the case should be tried. Horie’s attorneys believe that if the case is moved to the Isle of Man, the defendants will never show up. A lawsuit in the Isle of Man, they believe, may as well be a lawsuit on the moon.
These days, it seems, Katya, the chipper Manx-Pam on Spaceisle.com, doesn’t have much to do. While the Isle of Man seemed a great place for established telecommunications companies to do their banking, space exploration companies were less visible.
That’s why the Manx parliament, called Tynwald, held a yearlong inquiry in 2012 to measure the success of its public relations campaign with ManSat. On the plus side, the inquiry noted that all of NASA’s and the U.S. Air Force’s ejector seats were, for some reason, made on the island, and that, in general, “the space industry on the Isle of Man is remarkably strong.”
On the negative side, while ManSat had boasted of the country’s prowess in licensing and permitting satellites for companies around the world, the inquiry noted that although ManSat had made 60 “satellite findings” over ten years, only one was ever launched.
The inquiry further noted that much of the hoopla surrounding the supposedly booming industry had to do with the fact that Excalibur Almaz was one of only two companies with sights set on the moon, and neither company had done much of anything. The most exciting thing to happen to Excalibur, it seemed, was when a bunch of Manx schoolchildren were invited to the hangar to play around in the capsules.
Tynwald officials registered their “unease that, entertaining though the prospect of a Manx moon landing may be, claims of this kind can be counter-productive.”
Officials also had a hard time finding out the number of Manx citizens actually employed in the space industry, pegging the figure at somewhere between 20 and 76. (In a separate audit, with the inclusion of part-time jobs, hotel staff and bankers, the number shot up to 95.)
Much of the excitement surrounding the island’s positioning in the commercial space race was tied to Excalibur Almaz, which had to shelve plans to launch multimillionaires into orbit because of what Dula called a fourfold increase in transportation costs.
For some reason, while Dula was able to test the flight-worthiness of his decades-old fleet of ex-Soviet military spacecraft and had the wherewithal to commission multiple in-depth marketing and engineering studies over the years in order to prove the company’s readiness, he forgot to figure in an extra buck or two in case the cost of fuel went up.
In 2014, Dula told the Isle of Man Today newspaper, ‘Relations now with Russia are somewhat strained. We are waiting to see how things work out with that.’
A year later, Dula told the UK’s Independent that Excalibur’s airport hangar lease had expired, and that the spacecraft would be moved to an undisclosed location. It was a “confidential business matter,” he explained.
“Our business has not failed yet, but we certainly haven’t succeeded,” he told the paper.
While Dula still heaped praise on the Isle of Man, he and Buckner Hightower, Excalibur’s executive vice president, have their eyes on Liverpool as the next hot spot. This past March, Dula appeared on The Space Show, an Internet radio show popular in the industry, to discuss the recently formed Northern Space Consortium, which promises to build a strong space-related manufacturing presence in northern England. In April, the consortium held a conference sponsored by Excalibur and the Heinlein Prize Trust.
“I’ll make a prediction,” Dula said. “Most of the people who are hearing this broadcast will live to be able to go into space as they now go to another continent.”
And, if things work out, people will have that chance through Excalibur. At the April Northern Space Consortium conference, Hightower gave a speech detailing the company’s interest in Liverpool’s “precision manufacturing capability,” which will come in handy for when Excalibur begins building more spacecraft. So far, he said, the company has invested $30 million on its existing fleet.
They’re about to enter another round of investments.