After a little more digging, I found this article about Excalibur Almaz Limited, a private international corporation that has purchased old Soviet top secret space technology from the 1970s:
The project is led by Excalibur Almaz Limited (EA), an international space exploration company that has teamed with the Almaz RRV spacecraft manufacturer and other Russian and U.S. companies. EA is led by Art Dula founder and CEO of the venture.
The EA management team includes some of NASA’s most senior Apollo and space shuttle program managers, including George W.S. Abby and Jay Honeycutt, former directors of the Johnson and Kennedy Space Centers.
Dula has also contracted with several international companies to help out. They include Space Flight Operations (SFO) a subsidiary of United Space Alliance in the United States; EADS Astrium Space Transportation in Europe; and Japan Manned Space Systems in Japan. EA intends to begin flight tests of the Almaz hardware by 2012 and to launch its first revenue flight as early as 2013.
Excalibur has raised “tens of millions of dollars” to initiate what will become a several hundred million dollar program, Dula tells Spaceflight Now. He has spent more than 20 years eying this specific Almaz program, something I can vouch for from my own experience with the Almaz program in Russia.
He also says “the business plan closes” generating profits within a few years. His surveys have found research and science customers for space missions that are not tourist hops, but less demanding than ISS operations.
The program is about to redo a science/industrial user study it did once in 2006. Dula says individual contacts already indicate there is a strong market for science and industrial missions that would not have to fly on the International Space Station and want to spend less time aloft than an ISS flight. Each mission will be piloted by an experienced cosmonaut or astronaut and can carry 2 researchers.
The reusable Russian hardware purchased to initiate the venture was built more than 30 years ago as part of a large Soviet space reconnaissance program that was killed by the Soviets, much like its U.S. counterpoint was canceled by the U.S. Air Force.
That Russian hardware will now be used to “open a new era of private orbital space flight for commercial customers, using updated elements of the Almaz space system,” says Dula.He has over 30 years of experience as a Houston attorney specializing in commercial space, aerospace, export control and intellectual property law . He has also served as a Director and General Counsel for several aerospace companies, including Eagle Aerospace, Inc. and Space Services, Inc., which launched the first private U.S. space vehicle; and Spacehab, Inc., which built the Spacehab modules for the U.S. Space Shuttle. He also served as a Director and President of Space Commerce Corporation, the first US-Russian aerospace joint venture.
His management team includes former U.S. astronaut Leroy Chiao as Executive Vice President for Technical Operations. Chiao has launched three times on the shuttle, and once on the Soyuz to the ISS where he has done six spacewalks in both U.S. and Russian space suits. Chiao also commanded the ISS Expedition 10 crew spending 6.5 months in space. He is now also a broadcast partner with Miles O’Brien for Spaceflight Now’s highly successful shuttle prelaunch webcasts.
“We have purposely been operating for the last few years under the radar because we did not want to be looked upon as some of these companies that later fizzle, but start out with fancy graphics about their credentials in ‘New Space’,” Chiao says.
The project’s primary technical partner in Russia is NPO Mashinostroyenia (pronounced machine-ah-st-roy-a-ya (NPROM). The highly regarded company which builds the reusable Almaz reentry vehicles also built the Almaz space stations that were at the heart of the military reconnaissance system.
Somewhat resembling civilian Salyut stations, but with a far different mission, the Almaz stations were renamed Salyut 2, 3 and 5 as a covert cover and launched in the 1970s. Salyut 2 failed before any cosmonauts could be launched to it, but Salyut 3 and 5 were generally successful in demonstrating manned military space capability. Two more civilian Salyuts (6 and 7) were launched, before Mir’s launch in 1986.
In addition to buying several Almaz reentry vehicles, the company has also bought two complete Almaz space station hulls.
It has no plans to outfit and launch the stations, however, until substantial business experience with the reentry vehicle mounted on a service module laboratory.
The Soviet Almaz TKS reentry vehicle/service module design planned for commercialization is remarkably similar to the equally secret 1960s U.S. Air Force Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) reconnaissance spacecraft.
That system would have used a Gemini spacecraft with a hatch in its heat shield to enable American military astronauts to come and go between the Gemini and the laboratory module mounted underneath. The project was killed before it ever carried astronauts.
I find it interesting to observe that the MOL/Gemini combo looks remarkably like the only UFO I have seen when I was 8 years old (in 1967).
The only difference being the object had antenna sticking out the front and made a humming noise, not a jet or rocket sound. No contrail either.
But I digress.
I imagine Art Dula, the CEO of the company, is getting a good deal on this stuff.
He witnessed some of the equipment being launched on a Proton rocket in the 1980s, toward the end of the Soviet Union.
He also is literary executor of the late science fiction author Robert Heinlein, an early champion of private and commercial space enterprises.
That could be a good story itself for another day.