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Eccentric Orbits: The Iridium Story

4.19  ·  Rating details ·  659 ratings  ·  101 reviews
In the early 1990s, Motorola, the legendary American technology company developed a revolutionary satellite system called Iridium that promised to be its crowning achievement. Light years ahead of anything previously put into space, and built on technology developed for Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars,” Iridium’s constellation of 66 satellites in polar orbit meant that no matte ...more
Hardcover, 560 pages
Published June 7th 2016 by Atlantic Monthly Press
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Always Pouting
The book basically talks about how some people set out to save the Iridium satellite system when Motorola decided to shut down the program and decommission the satellites. It is really well written and I learned a lot, the only problem is I kept getting really bored while reading it because I don't really care about people's personal lives and accomplishments usually unless its supposed to give me something so I kept wanting to stop reading. It's like that other book I read by the neuroscientist ...more
Chris
May 14, 2016 rated it really liked it
A really great book. Educational, entertaining, and simply a book that once you are done reading it with fascination and interest, you will want to loan to your friends to get them interested in space, high technology, and how people build these marvelous systems. The story of the Iridium constellation of communications satellites is decades long, and it involves many, many people, as well as many governments and companies. I was dimly aware of Iridium before I started the book. I am now a fan. ...more
Peter Tillman
Apr 26, 2018 rated it liked it
Off to a fine start. Bloom has done his homework, and the book is full of fresh insights, insider details and cool techie stuff. For instance, I doubt you knew that Beverly Byron, an ex-Congresswoman from Maryland, was the first woman to fly in the SR-71 Blackbird. She played a role in Dan Colussy's lonely quest to save Iridium from Motorola.

My kind of book! A space-cadet's dream. With caveats, below. Overall, 3.5 stars, rounded down for the clutter. You should still read it, if you are fascinat
...more
Nooilforpacifists
Jun 04, 2016 rated it really liked it
It's odd to read a book in which one actually played an (un-credited) part. So much of this book is fun for me to read; much of it is right; a great tale about how an International Telecommunication Union vote was won is wrong--I was there. It's a shame that some key contributors (not me) go un-mentioned.

And although I haven't bothered to look up the statute of limitations on the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, the author could have described astoundingly audacious events without naming the names
...more
Shoti
Oct 18, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: cosmology, business
Iridium. A constellation of 66 satellites moving in low fast planes, north and south, over the Poles. The satellites travel at 16,776 miles an hour, fast enough to pass over the North Pole every 100 minutes. An engineering and scientific marvel. Truly amazing.

Even more astonishing though is the epic screw up by Motorola’s management that almost led to the demise of the whole constellation. Marketing Iridium sat phone services to uninterested 'international business travelers'? Squeezing Iridium
...more
Song
Jun 25, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This is an excellent book to tell the legendary stories of Iridium, the first true globally covered satellite communication system in human history. I recommend the book as a must-read for the MBA case study about innovation, company governance, product marketing, globalization, fund raising, government relationship, bankrupt and company turnaround. Anyone who is interested in aerospace, rocket&satellite history and telecommunications will definitely have fun too. John Bloom the author wrote the ...more
Donald McEntee
Jun 06, 2016 rated it it was amazing
It WAS amazing! The tech is amazing, the story is amazing, the business is amazing (though convoluted, complicated, and impossible to follow), and the ending...! Heroes AND villains! (And incompetents.) Engagingly written.
Paperclippe
So this was a 20-hour long audiobook mostly about backroom business deals and stock prices and I could not. stop. listening.

To be fair it also delved into quite a bit of very interesting history and the fantastically involved science required to launch more than 77 comsats into orbit, which is more my speed, but even those topics risk a bit of, shall we say, a need to be moisturized, and this was just stellar. I was riveted and frustrated the whole way through, which is the only proper response
...more
Keyton
Jan 01, 2017 rated it really liked it
There are three main Iridium threads through this book: business (mostly boring), politics (interesting in a train-wrecky kinda way), and engineering (absolutely spell-binding).

Iridium was a telecommunications tragedy. An engineering marvel and a business disaster. The catalyst for a comsat space race and the poster-child for the irrational business model. And somehow it came out the other side providing value in several markets.

But it could have been different! In a not-too-distant parallel un
...more
Darren
Apr 30, 2016 rated it it was amazing
This book could read a bit like an action-adventure thriller; it has intrigue, financial problems, boardroom actions, drama and the works. That it is a true story concerning a bunch of satellites is neither here or there; it is a good story whether you are a tech or business nerd, or whether you just like reading good books!

The author has put together an engaging look at the trials and tribulations of Iridium, destined to be a revolutionary satellite communications system that would provide mobi
...more
Gendou
May 08, 2018 rated it really liked it
This is a very detailed telling of a pretty boring business story. I liked it more than you might expect. It was a nice change of pace to hear the gory details from business, a topic I don't usually read about. Most of the time I ignored the 4th wall and really got into the characters and their impressive dedication to saving (or destroying) these satellites.

One issue really bothered me towards the end. Motorola was made out to be the villain for wanting to deorbit the constellation. This myster
...more
Kyle
May 19, 2020 rated it really liked it
This was a fairly enjoyable book, but there are at least two issues that keep me from giving it a full five stars. The first issue is that while it starts with a great pace, the middle felt a bit bogged down in biography after biography of the different people involved. I don't mind some tangents, but it sometimes felt like the thread of the story was being lost. It does recover a better pace about halfway-through, though, so I still found it engaging as a book overall.

The second is that there a
...more
Thom
May 15, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Part story of cool tech (satellite phones), part business story (project kickoff to bankruptcy and beyond) and part biography of Dan Colussy. The David and Goliath aspect of the third part is what the author is most excited to tell, the first part is what I most wanted to read.

The cool tech is very cool, and describes the Iridium solution in detail while delivering plenty of comparisons to competing solutions. Many investors were in it primarily for that aspect, and I am glad that it is a major
...more
Shane Phillips
Mar 12, 2017 rated it liked it
I enjoyed the development of the technology and satellites. However, over 5 hours of bankruptcy, long long descriptions of every CEO, potential CEO, meetings, and negotiations was just not interesting to me.
David
Jan 17, 2018 rated it really liked it
Loved the descriptions of the technology and personalities, but the regulatory aspects lost my attention
JQAdams
Sep 24, 2016 rated it really liked it
Each chapter of this book begins with a slugline of date and location, as befits a breathlessly propulsive screenplay. Then you get to the actual content, which is, at least in description, just the opposite: a detailed, technical-skewing tale of engineering and financial wheeling 'n' dealing. Or, more precisely, multiple tales, one (the first third or so of the book) focusing on the engineering side of the Iridium communications-satellite constellation, the other (the remaining two thirds) abou ...more
Luke Paulsen
Oct 03, 2017 rated it really liked it
Some of my favorite nonfiction books are the ones that give me a peek at a whole different world-- one I didn't realize existed. If they're really good they even give me a sense of what it's like to live there. Eccentric Orbits is that kind of book. It tossed me into a world inhabited by venture capitalists, high-tech titans, insurers, Pentagon brass, lobbyists, government "fixers", bureaucrats, and politicians-- a world where the lowest numbers worth mentioning are in the millions of dollars, a ...more
Victoria
Apr 13, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: netgalley
Wow, first reviewer. I don't think that's ever happened before. This book was a wonderful surprise. And thanks to Netgalley and Grove Atlantic for letting me read it pre-publication. Behind my former English major disguise, there lies a bit of a science geek. I also have an interest in business stories and the workings of how things get done (or not) in our labyrinthine Federal government since I've been working in that world for almost 30 years. So this book hit all my buttons. Without rehashin ...more
Charles
Nov 13, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Traces the history of Iridium from the founding of Motorola through the 2000s. Most of the plot centers around the near-death of Iridium. The massive constellation was nearly de-orbited! Bill Clinton got involved via backchannels to try to save what turned out to be a critical defense asset. Executives from Black Entertainment Television and a shady Saudi prince got involved in the bailout, helping Dan Colussy bailout the failing firm.

Coolest bit: On May 9th, 2004, the network became overloaded.
...more
Katherine Eanes
Sep 25, 2016 rated it really liked it
Okay, be prepared. This story is fascinating, but pretty long and somewhat of a slog to finish. That's only because it was so thoroughly researched, and the author documented every step of Dan Colussy's titanic struggle to save an unparalleled technological advancement that cost billions to create and was going to be tossed on the trash heap of history due to poor business planning and a lack of investors. If you're interested in reading the world's most astounding David vs. Goliath story, read ...more
Margaret Sankey
Nov 17, 2016 rated it really liked it
This is a lively work of technological history, chronicling the rise, literal near-fall and rise of the Iridium satellite constellation, designed and launched by Motorola to service their early mobile phone service. Despite being beloved by long-distance sailors and researchers in remote regions, the service quickly went bankrupt form a lack of other people willing to pay their steep fees. As part of the bankruptcy, the satellites were on the brink of destruction when a motley group of investors ...more
Mike Warren
Jul 13, 2020 rated it really liked it
On April 11, 2001, Dr. Ron Shemenski, the on-duty physician at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, passed a gallstone and diagnosed himself with acute pancreatitis. Stranded at one of the most remote locations on earth, his life hung in the balance as, over the next two weeks, a complex rescue mission requiring coordination on three continents was executed. Eventually, Dr. Shemenski was returned to his home in Denver, and his life was saved. The life-saving coordination was accomplished with ...more
Dean
Sep 04, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: business
A great business story or case study. The hubris and greed of Motorola redeemed by the bankruptcy process and the commitment of one man's refusal to let a modern engineering marvel be liquidated rather than be reorganized. Big thumbs up recommendation.
Josh Friedlander
Mar 18, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: tech
Kind of a like a business version of Mission Impossible. The hero, super-businessdude Dan Colussy* (who'd run Pan Am through hijackings, the worst plane crash in history, negotiations with Ayatollah Khomeini...) takes on an impossible project: an eye-watering Motorola boondoggle consisting of 82 satellites in low-earth eccentric orbits, the most complicated engineering project since the toy in Los Alamos, and one that the parent company was determined to shut down immediately by crashing every s ...more
Tech Historian
Dec 30, 2017 rated it liked it
If the story of The Making of the Atomic Bomb: 25th Anniversary Edition had been written by the NY Post page 6 gossip columnist rather than Richard Rhodes you’ll get a feeling of what you’re about to read.

The good:
Iridium is probably the most interesting corporate death and resurrection story of the last 25 years. Engineering and finance driven, and sucked financially dry by Motorola, Iridium simply put its head in the sand about whether customers would actually want their product. They were lit
...more
Catherine McCollum
Oct 25, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Have you ever looked up at the sky just after sunset and seen a brief flash of light, lasting only a few seconds? More about this later.

Let's back up - you're driving on I-5 in Washington State, somewhere just south of Centralia or Chehalis let's say, and your cell phone loses connection. Or you're in the Arctic doing research, or the dessert on a military mission, on a tour in the Yucatan, or you're on a boat in any ocean and your cellphone has become nothing more than an expensive paperweight
...more
Craig Williams
Apr 15, 2019 rated it liked it
John Bloom, known by most as his movie host persona Joe Bob Briggs, details the rise, the fall, and the rise again of Iridium, the most prolific satellite phone company in the world.

Being a fan of Joe Bob Briggs, I read this out of sheer curiosity to learn more about the man behind the redneck film guru, insofar as it comes to his interests outside the realm of B-movie cinema. I came away learning more about satellite history than I ever wanted (although it was kind of interesting) and a compreh
...more
Ralph
Jul 05, 2017 rated it really liked it
I worked for Orbital Science Corp in Chandler, AZ, from 1989 to 1996. During part of that time, engineers from Motorola/Iridium occupied part of the same building. They were working on what sounded like a fantastic dream - a constellation of 77 satellites in low earth orbits that would provide phone coverage anywhere in the world 24/7. They were sealed off in part of the building - off limits to me. Some years later, I was surprised to that not only had the constellation been launched and gone o ...more
Lucas
Jan 23, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I’d be lying if I said I sought this book out because I was THAT interested in the satellite phone industry. What got me interested in the satellite phone industry and what told me a story I didn’t know I really wanted to read was author John Bloom. Best known to myself and most movie buffs as film critic and horror host Joe Bob Briggs.

Bloom tells the immense and troublesome saga of the Iridium satellite phone company in delightful Joe Bob prose with numerous digressions that always manage to c
...more
Jeffrey
Jun 22, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: technology
My #1 favorite book of 2016. As someone who believes that there is usually more to be gained by studying failures rather than successes, I learned a lot about that. But it's mainly the story of one man who persevered through seemingly endless struggles with creditors, owners, investors, government agencies and fickle customers to bring a revolutionary technological system from the very brink of literal destruction back to life. If you have ever fought for something in your work life that was a l ...more
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John Bloom is a journalist and entertainer born in Dallas, Texas, who grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, and now lives in New York City.

While serving as New York bureau chief for United Press International, he was an eyewitness to the events of 9/11 and was nominated by UPI for the Pulitzer Prize. His work for Texas Monthly magazine has been nominated three times for the National Magazine Award, a
...more

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“Stamp was also innovative about his assembly line, setting up his factory in Chandler so that the satellites were built horizontally instead of vertically. That meant the assemblers could work at waist level, whereas on military satellites, the technicians stood on ladders and leaned over. He trained Lockheed Martin in the new technique, then later bragged about it to his friends at Khrunichev in Moscow, only to be told, “We’ve done it that way for forty years.” 0 likes
“CDMA—better known as frequency hopping, or “spread spectrum”—was a way to use multiple frequencies to send the same signal. This system was invented by Hedy Lamarr, the actress, and would become the industry standard.19” 0 likes
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