WASHINGTON – Growing up in a provincial town in Iran, Nader Modanlo was fascinated by the flickering TV images of astronauts walking on the moon.
As a teenager, he came to the United States, where he earned degrees in aerospace engineering, became a U.S. citizen and co-founded a pioneering satellite telecommunications company that at one point was worth up to $500 million. He seemed on the verge of the kind of success that immigrants dream of achieving.
Today, those dreams are burning up like a spacecraft in steep re-entry.
Modanlo's company is bankrupt, his U.S. and Iranian passports have been confiscated and a federal judge has ordered him to wear an electronic monitoring bracelet while he sleeps.
A federal grand jury indicted the Potomac, Md., resident last year on charges he secretly brokered the launch from Russia of the first Iranian-owned satellite in 2005, in violation of the U.S. sanctions against Iran. If convicted on all counts, he could be sentenced to 65 years in prison and ordered to pay $10 million. Five Iranian nationals were also indicted, but none are in custody.
Iran went on to launch its first satellite aboard an Iranian-built rocket in 2009 and its second earlier this month. Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics said the June 15 launch of the tiny Rashad-1 satellite, a 34-pound orbiter, shows the country is well on its way to mastering the multi-stage rocket technology that would be needed for long-range nuclear missiles.
McDowell called it an impressive record for a country in the early stages of its space program.
"They might have a couple of more failures in the next couple of launches," he said. "But after that, they will basically have the capability to know what they're doing."
Modanlo, 50, denies that he violated U.S. sanctions and is free on $250,000 bond. He declined through his lawyers to be interviewed, and officials from the Justice Department and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement likewise declined to discuss the case. But experts, court documents and other public records describe how his ambitions might have led him into trouble. The trial is expected to begin in October 2012.
The 2005 launch from Russia of the Sina-1 satellite came one day after newly-elected Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Israel must be "wiped off the map." To many, the launch seemed to back up this threat.
David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security, an expert on nuclear proliferation, said Iran is focused on the military applications of space science. "One of the goals of the program, and it appears to be an ongoing program, is to develop a missile that can carry a nuclear warhead if Iran decides to build one," he said.
Iranian officials insist that they are pursuing nuclear technology strictly for peaceful purposes. But their refusal to disclose all their nuclear activities has raised international suspicions, and has led to four rounds of United Nations sanctions since 2006.
A recent International Atomic Energy Agency report said there was evidence Iranian scientists were studying ways to build nuclear warheads compact enough to be carried by a missile. Ahmadinejad recently announced Iran was expanding its uranium enrichment program, bringing the country another step closer to the capacity to build weapons.
The Justice Department said Modanlo's case is just one of more than 150 filed by prosecutors in the past four years against arms traders and middlemen suspected of helping Tehran illegally acquire U.S. technology. Defendants have been accused of using shell companies, offshore bank accounts and faked end-user certificates to supply Tehran with everything from U.S.-made component parts for missile guidance systems to the ultra-high-strength steel needed to build centrifuges that enrich uranium.
Yet Modanlo's case stands out. Unlike most of those prosecuted under the act, he isn't charged with shipping U.S. technology to Iran. Instead, he is suspected of using his business contacts and aerospace engineering experience to help launch Iran's space program.
Modanlo said he came to the U.S. from the Iranian city of Sari on the Caspian Sea coast in 1979 — the year of the Islamic revolution, according to interviews with The Washington Post and other publications in the 1990s. After earning degrees in engineering and aeronautics from George Washington University, he worked on projects for the Defense Department and NASA.
Modanlo and business partner Michael Ahan in 1992 founded Final Analysis Inc., based in offices near NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. They planned to loft a network of up to 32 small, low-earth orbiting telecommunications satellites that were designed to provide low-cost messaging and cargo tracking services.
"It was a good idea, and he (Modanlo) was one of the early guys thinking about it," said researcher David Boyle of Texas A&M University, whose lab developed communications gear for Final Analysis.
Modanlo's plan was to save millions by launching half-a-dozen communications satellites at a time using Soviet ICBMs, designed to carry multiple nuclear warheads aimed at the U.S. He and Ahan signed a deal with a top former Soviet missile scientist, Dr. Alexander I. Ilyin of Gloria Polyot, or "Glory Flight" in English. The private company employed scientists and technicians working at a missile factory in the Siberian town of Omsk.
The swords-into-ploughshares deal fit neatly into Washington's drive to encourage former Soviet weapons scientists to move into civilian jobs.
A Polyot rocket carried a Final Analysis test satellite, FAISAT-1, into orbit in January 1995 — the first launch of a U.S. satellite from post-Soviet Russia. But the orbiter quickly went silent. McDowell, the satellite expert, said the onboard computer wasn't hardened against radiation and may have fried in a solar storm.
Final Analysis scrambled to launch a second satellite, FAISAT-2v, in September 1997, but that failed as well. Modanlo later said the orbiter's Russian-built solar panels didn't generate enough power.
Despite the setbacks, Modanlo and Ahan raised millions from dozens of private investors and struck a deal with a subsidiary of a major defense contractor, General Dynamics, to provide engineering, networking and ground operations services for the planned satellite network.
But the two aerospace pioneers were increasingly at odds over the direction of their company. After they split, Final Analysis was forced into corporate bankruptcy in September 2001.
After almost 11 years, the bankruptcy case is still in litigation. Claims, counter-claims and appeals have led to at least ten related cases in county, state and federal courts in the U.S.
While Modanlo struggled to keep control of his company in the courts, the indictment said, he facilitated a series of meetings in Moscow between Polyot and Iranian government officials, including Sirous Naseri, a consultant to the Iranian foreign ministry, and Hamid Malmirian, general director of Iran's state-financed National Geographical Organization. Both are among the five co-defendants in the case.
Russian signed a deal in December 2001 to provide Iran with satellites, launch services and a satellite control center for $15 million. According to the indictment, a few months later Modanlo and several co-defendants founded a company called Prospect Telecom in Switzerland that was used to launder a $10 million fee to Modanlo for setting up the satellite deal.
In bankruptcy court filings, some disgruntled investors claimed Modanlo had used forged signatures and documents to divert more than $6 million from his satellite business. Modanlo said the money represented legitimate payments to Gloria Polyot.
The civil court claims drew the attention of the U.S. government, and in May 2004, federal agents raided Modanlo's suburban home and business office. They hauled off 120 computers, discs and drives. Officials also seized enough paper to fill a 225-square-foot room.
But the American investigation didn't derail the Iran-Russia satellite project. In October 2005, Polyot launched the 375-pound Sina-1 from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in a forest about 500 miles north of Moscow. The tiny orbiter carried two cameras and bore a map of Iran on its skin.
The Russian and Israeli press speculated that Sina-1 was designed to spy on Israeli and U.S. forces in the Mideast. But McDowell said the orbiter's low-resolution cameras made it more suitable for its announced purpose, surveying agricultural cropland and mapping the effects of earthquakes, floods and other natural disasters.
The White House under President George W. Bush never commented publicly on the launch. But the deputy director of Russia's Federal Security Service said months later that Moscow was cooperating in a U.S. investigation of allegations that Modanlo had tried to transfer missile and space-related technologies to Iran.
Prosecutors and defense lawyers in the Modanlo case face unusual hurdles. The paper trail is gargantuan. The bankruptcy of the company Final Analysis and the cases it spawned have generated thousands of documents over the past decade. Court papers show it took months for the government to download two terabytes of digital data seized from Modanlo's home and office into a searchable database.
Getting the cooperation of key Iranian and Russian witnesses could be difficult or impossible. And the key piece of evidence in the case, the Sina-1 satellite, is in plain sight but forever out of reach.
It's still circling the earth every 99 minutes.