Eccentric Orbits: The Iridium Story
June 09, 2016
Veteran investigative journalist John Bloom tells the story of Iridium, which is by turns ambitious, stranger than fiction, cautionary, and instructive, and always completely engrossing.
Eccentric Orbits: The Iridium Story by John Bloom, Atlantic Monthly Press, 560 pages, $27.50, Hardcover, June 2016, ISBN 9780802121684
If you’ve ever heard of Iridium telephone, you are probably military, an epic adventurer, or a market follower that remembers its story from the financial press reports of the late ’90s. Iridium is a phone service that was launched by Motorola in November, 1998. Unlike most phone services, however, this one was very literally launched—on rockets, on which the satellites the system relies on, would be delivered into the heavens. A market disaster that ended up in bankruptcy court by August 11, 1999, Iridium’s original incarnation could be likened to a phenomenon created by it’s own satellites—the Iridium Flare:
If you’ve ever seem a fast-moving “star” in the night skies, it was probably an Iridium satellite, not a meteor, and its silver antennas were reflecting the suns rays, creating a phenomenon known as “Iridium flare,” which is brighter than Venus and can last up to ten seconds.
Iridium seemed to have earned its reputation as “the most useless techno-toy ever created,” and Motorola’s plan for the satellites was to deorbit them—or as they preferred to call it, re-orbit them—toward a fiery death in the Earth’s atmosphere. The business plan developed was terrible.
And yet… there were those sixty-six satellites, sailing around the planet in a geometrical canopy, blanketing Earth with sensors penetrating into the Amazon rain forest and the remotest parts of the oceans and every square foot of every major city, waiting for phone calls that never came.
And that is why Dan Colussy just couldn’t let go of the idea of saving it, couldn’t bear to see the satellite constellation destroyed. Most satellite systems cover only the places on Earth where there is a market for them. That leaves roughly 86 percent of the Earth’s surface uncovered. The reach of the Iridium system was omnipresent in every corner of the world at all times. Colussy knew that there had to be some use for it, and he was right.
Just giving you an outline of the entire Iridium story would take as much space as I have for this review, so I’ll just give you the setup. To do that, let’s backtrack to 1945, to the “Nerds, Nazis, and Nukes” author John Bloom tells us about in Chapter 2. This is where we learn that Iridium wasn’t just a failed Motorola product, but “the result of 100 years of sci-fi geek history.” It is a history filled with dreamers, eccentrics, and high school math teachers from places like Transylvania and “the bleak Russian steppe” who were taken more seriously by science fiction readers than the established science community of the day. The first people to ever conceive of launching rockets into the heavens were therefore published not in scientific journals, but in publications with names like Flying Saucer Review and Astounding Science Fiction.
It was in war where these dreamers were able to actually begin building rockets, and the most successful was Nazi officer Wernher von Braun, who along with 4,000 engineers and slave labor, built the V-2 “Vengeance” missile. But even then, Bloom tells us, “the celebratory toast” after their first successful launch “was devoted not to winning the war but to ‘making space travel possible.’”
When Nazi Germany began collapsing, von Brain decided to defect to America. One of the most surreal scenes in a book filled with surreality is the story of von Braun’s escape, complete with “fourteen tons of paper that he loaded into trucks and stowed in an abandoned iron mine in the Harz Mountains while his team made its way to Bavaria.” He eventually succeeded with 177 of the 500 engineers he took with him, leaving the engineers not accepted into America to be captured by the Russians. And that division of Nazi engineers that had developed the V-2 rocket, dear readers, was the beginning of the space race.
And like all of the previous efforts in rocketry, it was Motorola’s involvement as a contractor in a military project—The Strategic Defense Initiative, or “Star Wars” program—that garnered the funding necessary to get the ball rolling on the civilian side:
Technology developed for the Star Wars satellites, most of it classified, was what would be built into the Iridium system. … In the estimation of many analysts, Star Wars was what led Mikhail Gorbachev to seek peace with the West, but it had another, purely technological legacy, and that was Iridium.
The idea and design for the Iridium system came out of the Systems Engineering Group, a kind of Motorola skunkworks operation in the desert of Arizona that was started to design and develop new products and new markets from scratch. It was a twelve person team with a big idea and an engineering project that went astropolitical. There are many elements of that story that seem apocryphal, like how Iridium’s funding came through the same day the Berlin Wall came down.
And along the way to the system’s launch, you’ll get a brief history of Motorola dating back to 1928, and learn the intricate details of the global effort the company put together to launch the Iridium constellation, almost as complicated in its corporate structure and financing on the ground as in its engineering and orbit in the sky. And then there are the politics, which make it ripe for a miniseries treatment:
The ten years that began with the announcement of Iridium in June 1990 were full of treachery, deception, and espionage worthy of the Roman Senate at its worst, penetrating borders, arousing the ire of nations, and often resulting in outright violations of the law.
But it is the story of Dan Colussy, the hero of the story, that is perhaps the most remarkable. It is the tale of an individual taking on one of the most powerful corporations in the world to stop them from destroying their own property, which happened to be orbiting in the sky above us, and which they had been trying to send to a “fiery destruction” even before he first showed interest in acquiring it. It involves a cast of characters that make strange bedfellows. Eccentric Orbits' trajectory reaches into Wall Street, the Pentagon and Congress, the Whitehouse and the black entertainment business, includes a mysterious Arab prince, and dozens of banks and governments. In the end, along with all his unlikely allies, Dan Colussy makes a deal on par with the Louisiana Purchase, and saves a man-made constellation that powers the only phone system that is able to cover every inch of the planet—a system not many of us use, but that those who do rely on in across the globe every day. John Bloom's account of how it came to be in the sky, and how it was saved and remains there, is 560 pages of riveting detail. I've never used the term "tour de force" in a book review before, but if it ever belonged in one, it is this review of Eccentric Orbits.