Books

Atlantic Monthly Press
Atlantic Monthly Press
Atlantic Monthly Press

Eccentric Orbits

The Iridium Story

by John Bloom

How the largest man-made constellation in the heavens was built by dreamers in the Arizona desert, targeted for destruction by Motorola, and saved by a single Palm Beach retiree who battled the Pentagon, thirty banks, Congress, the White House, and a mysterious Arab prince to rescue the only phone that links every inch of the planet.

  • Imprint Atlantic Monthly Press
  • Page Count 560
  • Publication Date June 07, 2016
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-2168-4
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $27.50
  • Imprint Atlantic Monthly Press
  • Publication Date June 07, 2016
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-9282-0
  • US List Price $27.50

About The Book

In the early 1990s, Motorola, the legendary American company, made a huge gamble on a revolutionary satellite telephone system called Iridium. Light-years ahead of anything previously put into space, and built on technology developed for Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars,” Iridium’s constellation of sixty-six satellites in six evenly spaced orbital planes meant that at least one satellite was always overhead, and you could call Tibet from Fiji without a delay and without your call ever touching a wire.

Iridium was a mind-boggling technical accomplishment, surely the future of communication. The only problem was that Iridium was also a commercial disaster. Only months after launching service, it was $11 billion in debt, burning through $100 million a month and bringing in almost no revenue. Bankruptcy was inevitable—the largest to that point in American history. It looked like Iridium would go down as just a “science experiment.”

That is, until Dan Colussy got a wild idea. Colussy, a former CEO of Pan Am now retired and working on his golf game, heard about Motorola’s plans to “de-orbit” the system and decided he would buy Iridium and somehow turn around one of the biggest blunders in the history of business.

Eccentric Orbits masterfully traces the birth of Iridium and Colussy’s tireless efforts to stop it from being destroyed, from meetings with his motley investor group, to the Clinton White House, to the Pentagon, to the hunt for customers in special ops, shipping, aviation, mining, search and rescue—anyone who would need a durable phone at the end of Earth. Impeccably researched and wonderfully told, Eccentric Orbits is a rollicking, unforgettable tale of technological achievement, business failure, the military-industrial complex, and one of the greatest deals of all time.

Praise

“Engaging and ambitious . . . Eccentric Orbits is maximalist nonfiction, 500 pages of deep reporting put forward with epic intentions . . . a panoramic narrative, laced with fine filigree details, that makes for a story that soars and jumps and dives and digresses . . . [A] big, gutsy, exciting book.” —Jon Gertner, Wall Street Journal

“Think of Final Cut, Steven Bach’s gripping account of the notorious movie disaster “Heaven’s Gate.” Or The Smartest Guys in the Room, Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind’s chronicle of the collapse of Enron, and The Big Short, Michael Lewis’ tale of the cratering of the national economy. Eccentric Orbits . . . is a tale of ham-fisted management that’s lively enough to invite comparisons to those modern classics.” —Mark Athitakis, Los Angeles Times

“An exhaustive account . . . Eccentric Orbits not only offers good corporate drama, but is an enlightening narrative of how new communications infrastructures often come about: with a lot of luck, government help and investors who do not ask too many questions.” —Economist

“Those with visions of vast satellite communications networks dancing in their heads would do well to read John Bloom’s new book on [Iridium] . . . Bloom . . . tells this story well . . . He does a good job of explaining the technology and the importance of the inventors who made the technology possible.” —Dwayne A. Day, Washington Post

“An inspiring history as well as an effective business thriller . . . Bloom argues convincingly that creating and then saving Iridium was one . . . desperately difficult—and brilliant—achievement.” —Doug Millard, New Scientist

“Extensive . . . Sprawling . . . A detailed and entertaining history of the rise, fall, and rebirth of Iridium.” —Jeff Foust, Space Review

Eccentric Orbits is a story rich in larger-than-life characters, including shady Cold War operatives and warrior-like Motorola executives . . . Bloom gives a wonderful sense of what an engineering marvel Iridium was.” —Bethany McLean, Strategy + Business (Best Business Books 2016)

“Highly engaging . . . Check it out.” —Bill Virgin, News Tribune

“A good read.” —Marketplace

“A prize-worthy example of the investigative genre . . . [Eccentric Orbits] has conflict and triumph on a Wagnerian scale . . . John Bloom has achieved in Eccentric Orbits an admirable balance of the human and the technological in what is at heart an age-old tale of one man’s triumph against apparently insuperable odds.” —Martin Vander Weyer, Literary Review

“Riveting . . . 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.” —Dylan Schleicher, 800-CEO-READ

“An outstanding read . . . [An] inspiring story . . . Highly recommended.” —Robert Poole, Jr., ATC Reform News

“Spellbinding . . . A tireless researcher, Bloom delivers a superlative history . . . A tour de force.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Eccentric Orbits does for the 1990s birth of the satellite phone industry what Tracy Kidder’s Soul of a New Machine did for the next-generation computer business. It’s a wild story . . . With a deep cast of characters, Eccentric Orbits is like George Lucas’s Star Wars saga—complicated, seemingly never-ending and thrilling . . . Funny, informative, exciting . . . A business book that reads like a thriller complete with heroes, villains, subplots and intrigue . . . A sprawling masterpiece of history and reporting.” —Bruce Jacobs, Shelf Awareness

Eccentric Orbits is a remarkable work. I had known about Iridium but not about its fascinating history. John Bloom’s writing style is attractive and the level of detail is astonishing. This was a page turner for me!” —Vint Cerf, Chief Internet Evangelist, Google

“Interested in giant, head-scratching miscalculations by a great American company? The power of one man to rescue the world’s biggest deployment of low-earth satellites? A place where genius engineering meets a total lack of common sense? Then John Bloom’s book about Motorola’s multibillion-dollar debacle, Iridium, is for you. Eccentric Orbits is both a novelistic thriller and a cautionary tale, a page-turner about a reach for the heavens and a business primer on a near-fatal fall back to the earth.” —Julian Guthrie, author of The Billionaire and the Mechanic

“This book takes readers on an unusual, head-shaking investigative journey ab​out the provocative but little-known history of Iridium, the only phone network that covers anyone, anywhere, in the world—and which almost disappeared in a hell-bent suicidal incineration. Impeccably researched, and in smooth, easy prose, John Bloom interweaves fascinating historical trivia about the space race, satellites, and global communications with detail-filled personality snapshots and cringingly revealing, often disturbingly humorous, insights about the many ways big business can shoot itself in the foot.” —John Brewer, former president and editor-in-chief, New York Times Syndicate and News Service

“John Bloom’s Eccentric Orbits, which tells the story of one of the most ambitious projects in the history of technology, is the most compelling book I have read in a long while. Bloom somehow coaxed the deepest thoughts and darkest secrets out of many satellite engineers, skeptical VCs, business royalty, inner-city tycoons, Italian marketers, Russian rocket launchers, Arabian princes, corporate CEOs, African leaders, Washington insiders, insurance giants, Pentagon brass, government lifers, politicians, and frustrated bankruptcy judges. This is a masterpiece of research and storytelling. If not for Bloom, one of the greatest stories of American ingenuity and bullheadedness would still lie scattered in thousands of documents and the memories of those who lived it.” —Gary Kinder, author of Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea

“This is a monumental piece of non-fiction, not just for the breadth and depth of the research, but for its audacity: Bloom seeks to make technology and marketing and high finance dramatic and funny and instructive of the human condition—and succeeds. Until I read this, I had always assumed that my cell phone was created by something like spontaneous combustion; like one day, it just appeared between my right hand and my ear, as if it had always belonged there. Bloom has given all of us—all billions of us—the back story on it, and what a strange, tangled, convoluted, fairly hilarious one it is.” —Jim Atkinson, Texas Monthly contributing editor

“Build a better mousetrap, and the world will erect every possible obstacle to its success. That’s the sobering lesson of John Bloom’s book on the progress of a reliable, cheap, encrypted, worldwide mobile phone system to supermarket shelves. The exhilarating lesson is that it can be done if you have visionary geeks, hard-boiled veterans, retired capitalists, and the occasional eccentric rebellious bureaucrat determined to do it. This is high scientific journalism, exciting business journalism, and a rattling good tale. It even includes Nazis.” —John O’Sullivan, author of The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister: Three Who Changed the World

“Pacy [and] . . . worth reading, not just for the wild ride that involves secretive Saudi sheikhs, plucky terrorists, never-say-die businessmen and Bill Clinton, but also as a reminder of how vast business can be vastly dumb . . . A thrilling boom-to-boom corporate drama.” —Sunday Times (UK)

“John Bloom’s account of the Iridium satellite network is more than a ripping read, it is both a commentary on the way we do technology today and a reminder of Friedrick Hayek’s observation that presumed experts and planners are the last people you want picking winners. A tale well told is a thing of delight, and John Bloom’s Eccentric Orbits: The Iridium Story does not fail.” —Quadrant (Australia)

“Prepare to be amazed . . . Bloom’s retelling of the idea, creation, and near destruction of one of mankind’s greatest achievements is packed full of corporate espionage, cold war negotiations, and very rich people spending their money on the most extreme ideas.” —Hudson Booksellers (Best Books of 2016)

Awards

Named one of the “Top 10 Nonfiction Books of 2016” by the Wall Street Journal
Named one of “The 20 Books That Defined Our Year” by the Wall Street Journal
Named a Book of the Year 2016 by the Economist
An Amazon Best Book of the Month (Nonfiction and Business & Leadership)
An Amazon Best Book of the Year So Far (Business & Investing)
One of Hudson Booksellers’ Best Books of 2016 (Best Business Interest)

Excerpt

And now, overnight, it seemed like all things were possible.

A few weeks after they got the green light, Vice Chairman of the Board John Mitchell called to say that he needed the full Iridium team in Schaumburg.

“The Canadians are coming in,” he said with a chuckle, “to pre­sent their satellite phone plans.”

Canada had always been the most aggressive nation after the United States when it came to satellite projects. The vastness of the country and its sparse population made cellular coverage impractical over 80 percent of its landmass, so Canadian phone companies were always looking to the heavens for any kind of system that would connect its far-flung territories. Eldon Thompson, CEO of Telesat Canada, had been through several joint ventures with Motorola. At a morning meeting in Schaumburg, with about 30 people present, Thompson outlined his plan for a constellation of GEOs that would serve as a better solution for the often undependable car phones then in use.

“Eldon, that was a very interesting presentation,” said Mitchell. “Now we’ve got something to show you. If you could have all your people sign a non-disclosure agreement, we would like to make a demonstration.”

Leopold and Peterson then did a slick presentation of the still-secret Iridium system and, as Leopold recalled the reaction, “they about fell off their seats.”

Mitchell waited for the excitement to die down, then said, “I’ll sell it to you, Eldon, for two-point-six billion.”

Mitchell probably knew that Telesat didn’t have $2.6 billion, and neither did any of the other Canadian phone companies, but when the Iridium team got back to Chandler late that afternoon, Leopold was bouncing for joy. “I can’t believe that we created something that’s already worth two-billion-plus dollars.”

“That actually made me mad,” said Peterson. “It’s worth a lot more than that.”