Defying Gravity

Eccentric-Orbits-coverThe Iridium mobile communications network, in spite of its past financial troubles, has set remarkably high operating standards in satellite constellation manufacturing, launching and operations.

The Motorola team that built the satellites likely never would have imagined that the constellation would still in orbit 16 years after the original 72 spacecraft were launched, without a failure, on U.S., Russian and Chinese rockets in less than 13 months. Twenty-three spares were launched between 1998 and 2002.

The Iridium network operations team in Leesburg, Virgina, has been writing its own playbook in maintaining operational capability as Iridium Communications awaits the launch of its second-generation system. Those launches – 10 satellites each on seven SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets – are scheduled to start in September.

The Iridium story has produced two recent books with very different vantage points. Durrell Hillis, who ran Motorola’s defense and space group, has written an insiders’ technical assessment in Creating Iridium: How a Remarkable Team Made Space History.

Journalist John Bloom’s Eccentric Orbits: The Iridium Story , or How a Single Man Saved the World’s Largest Satellite Constellation from Fiery Destruction, focuses on the successful effort to save Iridium from shutting down after its first owners declared bankruptcy.


Motorola's Daniel Stamp stands in front of Proton rocket at Baikonur in 1997 Credit: Dannie Stamp with Proton rocket, © 1997, Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center

Motorola’s Daniel Stamp stands in front of Proton rocket at Baikonur in 1997
Credit: Dannie Stamp with Proton rocket, © 1997, Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center

Rocket Man

Excerpted from Eccentric Orbits: The Iridium Story, by John Bloom

Time: December 4, 1995

Place: Launch Complex 333, Baikonur Cosmodrome, Tyuratam, Kazakhstan

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Daniel Stamp was surrounded by the largest and oldest space complex in the world, and he was more than a little awestruck. Seven years earlier, Stamp would have been shot on sight if he’d come anywhere near the place. The Cold War was over, but emotional attitudes don’t die so easily: at some point in his subconscious this was still ground zero for every holocaust scenario for the past four decades. The location of “Scientific Research Test Range No. 5” — named after the distant mining town of Baikonur only as a way of disguising it — was chosen precisely because it’s in the middle of nowhere, a place where the first stages of ICBMs could fall to Earth and be picked up by military helicopters, and where scientists and engineers could be hidden away to do the research of death.

The world had changed but Baikonur remained. Baikonur was mythical and permanent. For most of his career, Stamp had been charged with inventing ways to destroy anything launched from here or, in a best-case scenario, blow up Baikonur itself. Now, less than four years after the end of the Cold War, Stamp was a guest, wandering unmarked streets surrounded by emptiness that made the flatlands of his native Iowa look Edenic by comparison.

“One reason I’m able to do Iridium,” he liked to say, “is that I’ve already confessed every sin” — meaning he’d been responsible for rockets that crashed into the ocean, satellites that tumbled out of orbit, and budgets that ran out of control.

Stamp was here because, when his bosses at Motorola asked him what launch vehicle he wanted to use for the 88 satellites they were going to put into space, he told them, without hesitation, “the Proton.” That was the Russian workhorse, one of the largest and most powerful rockets ever built. The UR-500, as it was officially known, had been designed in the early 1960s as a “super ICBM” that could deliver heavy warheads at distances of more than 8,000 miles but could also be used as a launcher for the race to the moon. When an early version was shown to Premier Khrushchev, he noted the monstrous size and said, “What should we build? Communism or silos for the UR-500?”

Dannie Stamp, silver-rimmed spectacles wrapped around a prematurely bald head, had a folksy way of speaking that made him one of the most likable guys to ever come out of the Air Force space program. More important, he loved vodka, and that meant he got along well with his new Russian partners. Stamp had the eager-to-please manner of a team player — or maybe just the learned behavior of a man who had been chewed out by generals his whole life. “One reason I’m able to do Iridium,” he liked to say, “is that I’ve already confessed every sin” — meaning he’d been responsible for rockets that crashed into the ocean, satellites that tumbled out of orbit, and budgets that ran out of control. Stamp was so battle-scarred that he didn’t trust rockets unless they had a long history of reliability, and he felt pretty much the same way about people. He hired based on reputations, not résumés, because he wanted colleagues who had already felt the agony of a rocket going nose down in the Pacific, or an employee driving a crane through an antenna. Stamp was now charged with building and launching more satellites in a shorter period of time than had ever been attempted in history, managing the largest commercial space project ever conceived. And he needed the Proton to do that.


SpaceNews_Iridium_8.1.16

Iridium’s technical triumphs and business setbacks as documented in the pages of SpaceNews over the last 20 years.

(FROM LEFT TO RIGHT):

• Jan. 20, 1997: Delta II Blast Delays Iridium

The explosion will likely affect the plans of many of the Huntington Beach, California, company’s customers. The initial brunt will be felt by Iridium LLC, which had hoped to launch its first three satellites as early as Jan. 20 on a Delta 2 rocket. That launch will be delayed pending the results of a U.S. Air Force investigation into the accident.

“This slows us down relative to our first Delta launch,” said a spokesman for Iridium. “But we don’t believe it will have any impact on our commercial activation date.” which currently ls scheduled for September 1998.”

• May 12, 1997:  Iridium Satellite Launch Boosts Firm’s Prospective Stock Offering

Plans to launch the next 12 satellites for the Motorola-led Iridium global telecommunications system are proceeding on schedule now that the first five spacecraft in the 66-satellite constellation have been successfully placed into low Earth orbit, company officials said.

• July 26, 1999: Iridium Officials Insist Venture Will Survive

Officials of Iridium LLC insist the pioneering satellite phone company will emerge from its financial troubles as a viable, if somewhat less ambitious, provider of specialized communications services, despite some harsh words from officials at Motorola, Iridium’s largest financial backer.

“I’ve been with Iridium for 10 years, and this is near-death experience number six or seven,” said Leo Mondale, Iridium’s chief financial officer.

• Nov. 6, 2000: Sale of Iridium’s Resources To New Firm Nears Closure

Attorneys for bankrupt Iridium LLC have nearly clinched a deal to transfer the Iridium satellite fleet and related ground infrastructure to a newly formed company that is expected to provide satellite telephone service commercially.

• April 2, 2001: New Iridium Cuts Costs, Lowers Price of Phone Calls

[T]he newly formed company that took over core assets of the bankrupt Iridium venture, is counting on sharply reduced expenses and uniform calling rates to build a successful mobile satellite phone business … Out of commercial service since early 2000, the Iridium fleet returned to commercial operation March 30.


Stamp’s Air Force career consisted principally of learning how the government operated space vehicles — and he knew it was not an efficient model. Everything depended on cost-plus contracts, so that any change made to the original design resulted in huge surcharges, and the cover-your-ass system of testing and retesting new equipment meant it took years to get anything into production and more years to make anything operational. By the time he retired in 1988, Stamp was convinced he could do things better from the corporate side. Stamp went to his old friends at Motorola, letting them know he was available if they had anything. And as it turned out, three of his friends were involved with something so top secret they wouldn’t tell him what it was. In fact, they mercilessly teased him before finally relenting one day and letting him sign a nondisclosure agreement so they could take him into a soundproof room and reveal what they were working on. What they were working on was Iridium.

As Iridium inventor Ray Leopold recalled later, “Dannie couldn’t be still. He was jumping up and down all over the room. He couldn’t control his excitement.” And within a matter of weeks, Stamp had joined the Iridium team, charged with managing the contracts to build the satellites and then getting them launched and functional. He knew it was an historic moment, the first time satellites would be deployed entirely by private industry. The Iridium team would be commercializing space. Eventually Lockheed Martin won the contract to design the bus and Raytheon won the contract for the main mission antenna. Stamp rode herd on both companies, reminding them that the final assembly of a satellite built by NASA or the Air Force took anywhere from nine months to one year per satellite. But since Motorola needed a hundred satellites, including all the spares and demonstration units, “obviously we don’t have a hundred years to build this constellation.”

He knew it was an historic moment, the first time satellites would be deployed entirely by private industry. The Iridium team would be commercializing space. Eventually Lockheed Martin won the contract to design the bus and Raytheon won the contract for the main mission antenna.

If Iridium had been a government project, for example, Stamp would have had to perform a thermal vacuum test on every satellite, placing it in a chamber that would simulate the brutal elements and intense radiation of space. The process was time-consuming and expensive, so Stamp made an early decision: they would “thermal-vac” the first one off the assembly line and assume all the rest were sound. Likewise, a decision was made to use commercial parts instead of the usual Class S or Class J radiation-hardened parts used by the military and NASA. Everything that Lockheed Martin and Raytheon built into the satellite had to be available “off the shelf.” Motorola at the time was working with Apple Computer on its first-generation PowerBook, so Stamp used that processor. “It was high performance, low power,” he said, “exactly what you want in space.”

And then there was the matter of what launchers to use. At first everyone wanted to use a Pegasus, the innovative rocket developed by Orbital Sciences that’s shuttled up to 40,000 feet on the back of a B-52 and then launched from the air in order to cut down on all the atmospheric drag. The Pegasus had proven more reliable and cheaper than any other rocket, but it was too small, the nose cone large enough for only one satellite, and they didn’t have time for 88 launches. Stamp started looking at the specs and launch histories of every rocket in the world and eventually told Motorola, “Look, I feel much safer on a Chinese or a Russian rocket than an American one.” All the American rockets were handled by either the Air Force or NASA, all of them had spotty launch histories, few of them had the power he wanted, and he didn’t trust the people in charge. Motorola was hesitant at first to launch the entire constellation with rockets built by foreign countries, but Stamp eventually developed a system whereby China and Russia received launch contracts in return for a partnership investment. Stamp liked China’s Long March 2C because it had been used since the 1970s and been proven highly reliable, and it was the right size. Since Iridium used evenly spaced axes of 11 satellites plus one spare per plane, it would need to launch in combinations of seven, five, and two. The huge Proton was perfect for launching seven satellites at a time. The Long March was perfect for two. And the Delta 2, built by McDonnell Douglas — regarded by Stamp as inferior to the other two rockets but the best America had to offer — would be used for the five-satellite launches.

Since no Americans had ever visited the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center, located in a remote mountainous region in China’s Shanxi Province, Stamp sent a team of technicians and engineers to check out the facility and prepare it for Iridium. The space complex is hidden in a depression between ranges of the Lüliang Mountains on three sides, with the Yellow River to the west. The Chinese had been operating their ICBM systems out of the site since 1968, so they had given it a series of misleading names, including the Dongfeng 3 test site, the Wuzhai Missile and Space Test Center, and simply Base 25. It was a strange all-but-invisible city full of tunnels, railheads, and underground bunkers where, rumor had it, a rocket had been launched in the 1980s and, in the parlance of the profession, “gone horizontal,” resulting in the destruction of an entire city. The legend was undoubtedly an exaggeration, but at any rate, while the Chinese welcomed Motorola’s business, they were not happy to see Stamp’s staff poking around Base 25. One day in 1996 Stamp got an urgent phone call. His team members had retired for the night to their rooms in the Chinese officers’ quarters, only to hear clanking sounds as the outer doors were chained shut. Stamp got on the phone with his military partners at China Great Wall Industry Corp. and made it clear: There will be no imprisonment of Motorolans, and if it ever happens again, forget about commercial space launches in your country. The Chinese stood down, and there were no further incidents.

By the end of 1995, all the technology for the Iridium system had been “locked,” and by the fall of 1996 Iridium was ready for launch. As the satellites rolled off the Chandler, Arizona, assembly line, it was time to select the first launch vehicle. The Proton was the most reliable, in his opinion, but he didn’t want to risk seven satellites on the first launch. So he decided to use the Long March 2C. But when Stamp went to his bosses, they were reluctant, partly because they considered it bad public relations to do the first launch from China. He finally decided to use a Delta 2, the McDonnell Douglas rocket, but launch just three satellites on it to be safe. So during the Christmas holidays of 1996 Stamp sent his team to Vandenberg Air Force Base, the 99,000-acre installation that had pioneered polar orbits with Discoverer 1 in 1959. Discoverer 1, like most launches from Vandenberg, had been a classified mission — a fake scientific expedition to cover for the Corona spy-satellite program. Since then Vandenberg had launched every generation of spy satellite, and by the time Stamp’s team arrived, the facility had gone through 1,721 rocket launches, most of them ICBM tests hitting targets in the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Working with the team from McDonnell Douglas, Stamp’s men fastened three satellites into the nose cone of the Delta 2, but each time they were ready to launch, weather intervened. The Delta 2 had a five-second launch window, meaning all atmospheric conditions had to be perfect five seconds prior to launch, and the Iridium team was ready to go three times in early January only to have the wind kick up and the launch be aborted.

Daniel Stamp stands in front of a Delta 2 rocket at Vandenberg ahead of its August 1997 launch of five Iridium satellites. Courtesy of Daniel Stamp via "Eccentric Orbits"

Daniel Stamp stands in front of a Delta 2 rocket at Vandenberg ahead of its August 1997 launch of five Iridium satellites. Courtesy of Daniel Stamp via “Eccentric Orbits”

Then, on Jan. 17, 1997, a minor disaster struck. At Cape Canaveral, the Air Force was launching a satellite for the next generation of GPS, but 12.5 seconds after liftoff, the whole thing blew up and the public address system ordered personnel to “take cover immediately from falling debris.” Unfortunately for Stamp, the malfunctioning launch vehicle was a Delta 2. Stamp’s McDonnell Douglas team was called away from Vandenberg and sent to Canaveral to investigate, and the next day the Air Force Accident Investigation Board shut down Iridium until further notice. Days turned into weeks turned into months, and Stamp could be heard to remark that even now, running the first constellation engineered by private industry, he couldn’t escape Air Force bureaucracy.

It was not until May 1997 that the ban on Delta 2 launches was lifted. For two years Stamp’s team had been on schedule. For two years he’d held daily operations meetings at 9 a.m. and tracked the progress of the constellation by the hour. He had completed the design process at half the cost per pound of a government satellite, and he had gotten the actual manufacturing process down to 48 calendar days per satellite, compared with military satellites that took nine to 18 months. Now, after all that work, he’d been shut down for four full months, and he was sweating bullets. So he fastened five birds into the nose cone of a Delta 2 — only to be, once again, stymied by the Pacific winds. Three more times the countdown was aborted at the last minute.

On Sunday night, May 4, Stamp checked the forecast and again found wind bursts and clouds that were likely to hamper his next try. At 5:15 a.m. he liked what he was seeing and gave the go-ahead to start pumping RP-1, a highly refined kerosene, into the Delta first stage, and the procedure was completed about the time the sun peeked over the horizon just before 6. At T minus 60 minutes, the wind remained dead calm, so the loading of the liquid oxygen for the main rocket engine began. By 6:35 all the teams — NASA, the Air Force, McDonnell Douglas, Motorola — took up their assigned positions and started the usual fidgeting. The bleachers on the spectator hilltop were empty this day.

The last of eight balloons was sent up around 7:45, and the reading came back: Green. Good to go. Stamp held his breath from T minus 10 down, and it finally happened at 7:55 a.m. The thrusters burned evenly, the earth trembled, the liftoff was clean, and Stamp watched the reddish-orange burn of the rocket for the full two or three minutes it was visible. Stamp watched the control screens as nine boosters fell away, the main engine cut off, and the second stage separated. Now all he had to worry about was his new dispenser popping the satellites out of the nose cone. According to the telemetry estimates, the rocket would be positioned over a tracking station in Hartebeesthoek, South Africa, when that was supposed to happen. There was a countdown monitor calibrated to that moment, and when the monitor reached zero, pyrotechnic charges blew three nuts off the fairing while compression springs pushed the first satellite clear of the dispenser. Everyone froze — until Hartebeesthoek reported, “Separation sighted.” A cheer went up in control centers on three continents. All five satellites, which had an expected life of five years, were still flying 19 years later.

When you’re dealing with rocket launches, there’s no such thing as perfection — millions of things can and do go wrong — but the Iridium project came as close to perfection as anyone ever had. Over the next 12 months, Iridium would break every record in the history of rocket science, launching 72 out of 72 satellites on 15 out of 15 rockets in 377 days.

IS-1_Brochure_PatchTranspWhen you’re dealing with rocket launches, there’s no such thing as perfection — millions of things can and do go wrong — but the Iridium project came as close to perfection as anyone ever had. Over the next 12 months, Iridium would break every record in the history of rocket science, launching 72 out of 72 satellites on 15 out of 15 rockets in 377 days. Nine of the rockets were Deltas launched from California, with three launches from Kazakhstan and three more from China. In one 13-day period, Stamp’s team ran launches from all three space centers, putting 14 satellites into orbit. Iridium had tied up 40 percent of all the launch contracts for the entire planet. After the constellation was operational, there were an additional 23 spares launched without flawing the perfect record — 95 satellites loaded, 95 satellites launched.

A first generation Iridium satellite

A first generation Iridium satellite

In fact, Stamp’s operations management had been so successful that he came in $300 million under budget. All involved would have memories that stuck with them the rest of their lives. But Dannie Stamp would always remember the moment at Baikonur when he asked to see the launch complex control room.

“You want to see the control room?” they said.

Yes, of course, he answered, I have to see where my men will be working.

The Russians said they would show him another exactly like the one they’d be using.

Stamp told them that was unacceptable — he had to see the actual room that his men would be using.

The Russians again talked among themselves for a few minutes, then came back to him.

“All right,” they said, “we’ll take you to the control room. But on the way there, we will go through another room first, and we want you to walk very fast, look down at the ground, and do not raise your head or move it to the left or the right at any time while you are in that room.”

All right, said Stamp, feeling the hairs on his neck stand up.

And so they proceeded to the control room. Stamp walked as slowly as possible and made slight movements of his head so he could see as far in both directions as possible.Eccentric Orbits cover

And what he saw was a carbon copy of the NORAD Combined Operations Center at Cheyenne Mountain, better known as the war room. The only difference was that the giant map had the former Sovie
t Union at the bottom and the United States and Canada upside down at the top. He noted all the blinking lights, indicating the locations of all the Peacekeepers and Minuteman 3s, and he suddenly realized that they were still on alert. For whatever paranoid reason, they were still ready to fire.

And then, of course, he toured the civilian control room and shared some vodka with his new friends and acted like he hadn’t noticed a thing. When you’re starting the first global corporation, the family has to get along.


Excerpted from “Eccentric Orbits: The Iridium Story” © 2016 by John Bloom; reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Atlantic Monthly Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc.