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Review: Eccentric Orbits

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Eccentric Orbits: The Iridium Story
by John Bloom
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2016
hardcover, 560 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-0-8021-2168-4

Last month, Iridium announced that the first of its next-generation satellites were ready for launch. At an event in the Phoenix suburb of Gilbert, Arizona, Iridium, working with satellite manufacturer Thales Alenia Space and its subcontractor, Orbital ATK, unveiled the first two of what will eventually be 81 Iridium NEXT satellites, declaring them ready for launch. The first ten of those satellites will launch in September on a SpaceX Falcon 9 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, with six more Falcon 9 launches scheduled through the end of 2017.

Colussy and Castle saw an opportunity: could they acquire Iridium and find a way to run the company more cost effectively, focusing on customers like the Defense Department?

Sixteen years ago, the idea that there would be an Iridium system at all, let alone development of a next-generation system, would have been preposterous to most people. The original Iridium system went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 1999, not long after the original constellation of satellites were complete, and in 2000 its backer, Motorola, seemed willing—eager, even—to simply deorbit the constellation and wash its hands of the whole embarrassment.

That the Iridium constellation survived those efforts, and continues to operate to this day, is largely because of the efforts of one man, writes John Bloom in his extensive history of Iridium, Eccentric Orbits. Dan Colussy was a retired executive who had, among other jobs, run Pan Am. He was on a yacht traversing the Panama Canal owned by an investment banker friend, John Castle, in early 2000 when the Iridium phone on board stopped working, as Motorola prepared to wind down the system. Colussy and Castle saw an opportunity: could they acquire Iridium and find a way to run the company more cost effectively, focusing on customers like the Defense Department?

The bulk of that book recounts that effort, led by Colussy, for much of 2000 to take over Iridium as Motorola, concerned about the cost and liability of the satellite system, threatened multiple times to deorbit the satellites. Bloom initially goes back and forth between those efforts—starting with Labor Day weekend of 2000, when the system’s demise appeared imminent—and the history of satellites in general and Iridium in particular. The book then converges on the efforts by Colussy to line up investors, win support from the White House and the Pentagon, and deal with intransigent executives at Motorola.

At nearly 500 pages (excluding endnotes and the index), the best way to describe this book is sprawling. Its title page includes this subtitle: “How the Largest Man-Made Constellation in the Heavens Was Built by Dreamers in the Arizona Desert, Targeted for Destruction by Panicked Executives, and Saved by a Single Palm Beach Retiree Who Battled Motorola, Cajoled the Pentagon, Wrestled with Thirty Banks, Survived an Attack by Congress, Infiltrated the White House, Found Allies Through the Black Entertainment Network, and Wooed a Mysterious Arab Prince to Rescue the Only Phone That Links Every Inch of the Planet.” Got all that?

Eccentric Orbits is a detailed and entertaining history of the rise, fall, and rebirth of Iridium.

And even that subtitle doesn’t convey all of the struggles Colussy faced in saving Iridium, or the problems the company faced. There was, for example, the 1992 World Administrative Radio Conference, where Motorola lobbied for the spectrum that it needed, facing opposition from European nations. The US delegation, backing Iridium, reached a deal with the Europeans: Europe would approve of the “Big LEO” spectrum allocation Iridium desired, and the US would back a terrestrial spectrum allocation desired by the Europeans, called Future Public Land Mobile Telecommunications Systems. That got Iridium the spectrum it needed, but sowed the seeds for what would later undermine it: that terrestrial spectrum opened the door for GSM, which would rapidly become a global standard.

Bloom relies extensively on interviews with the key people involved in the effort to salvage Iridium, including Colussy, as well as government documents, some obtained under Freedom of Information Act requests with the Clinton Presidential Library. But while the broad details may be accurate, one should be cautious about some of the details in the book. In a discussion of the phenomenon of “Iridium flares”, those sudden bright streaks in the night sky as the Sun reflects of the antennas of Iridium satellites, Bloom describes them as being of “magnitudes of 7 or 8.” Those would, in fact, be too dim to be seen by the naked eye at all, instead of being brighter than Venus; he more likely meant magnitudes of –7 to –8. In another description of a meeting of government officials in late 2000, Bloom refers to an “FAA lawyer named Patti Grace Smith.” Smith, who passed away last month, was not a lawyer but in fact the FAA’s associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the time, someone who would understandably be in the room with other federal government officials as they discussed the fate of Iridium.

The book is not meant to be a rigorous academic history of Iridium: the book’s endnotes, for example, are not references but instead discussions the author deemed too tangential to include in the main text, including one note more than a page long about the pursuit of horseracing’s Triple Crown in 2003. Eccentric Orbits is, though, a detailed and entertaining history of the rise, fall, and rebirth of Iridium, a company that is able today to prepare the launch of its next generation of satellites thanks largely to one person’s effort to save the original generation.