Volume 13, No. 2
News of the Field:
The Sociology of Invention:
Silicon Sky, Gary Dorsey, xx + 332 pp., Perseus Books, 1999. The Soul of a New Machine, Tracy Kidder, 293 pp., Avon Books, 1990 (originally published by Little, Brown in 1981).
Silicon Sky’s subtitle gives us the meaning of Gary Dorsey’s story: “how one small start-up went over the top to beat the big boys into satellite heaven.” As part of the Sloan technology series, the book chronicles the efforts of Orbital Sciences Corporation to enter the satellite manufacturing and the mobile satellite services businesses simultaneously between 1991 and 1992. Although author Dorsey is neither historian nor engineer, his description of Orbital Sciences and its offspring, Orbital Communications (Orbcomm), should be of interest to both communities. Dorsey reports the words and emotions of the people involved, especially the satellite builders, from the beginnings of the Orbcomm project in 1991 to the launch of the first two of a 36-satellite constellation in 1995.
Orbital Sciences began its existence in the mid-1980s as a commercial propulsion systems integrator and marketer. Their first product was the Transfer Orbit Stage, used to deliver satellites to orbits higher than those that the Shuttle could reach. The January 1986 Challenger disaster, followed by President Ronald Reagan’s decision to exclude commercial payloads from the Shuttle, destroyed the commercial viability of the Transfer Orbit Stage. Orbital Sciences then designed and built Pegasus, an air-launched winged rocket that would place small payloads in low earth orbit, that is, one less than 1,500 km above the Earth. Pegasus was successful. Its main customer was the U.S. government, although David Thompson, Orbital’s CEO, had founded the firm with a vision of commercial space, a vision that selling to the government did not fulfill.
During the late 1980s, new ideas about mobile satellite services, the use of non-geosynchronous orbits for satellite communications, and the advantages of small satellites emerged. Orbital pursued all three ideas, especially small satellites, and Orbcomm proposed to build, launch, and operate a constellation of small satellites that would provide global low-rate data transmission at an economical price. The competition, Iridium and Globalstar, operated at 1-2 GHz and cost billions of dollars to establish their mobile satellite services constellations. In contrast, Orbcomm would operate at lower frequencies (137-138 and 148-149 MHz) and would cost only about $100 million. Iridium, Globalstar, and Orbcomm launched their constellations in the late 1990s. Iridium and Orbcomm have gone into bankruptcy, and Globalstar is expected to follow. In spite of Orbcomm’s failure, Orbital Sciences has established itself as a competitive builder of small and medium-to-large satellites. The operation failed, but the patient lived.
Dorsey describes the efforts of young engineers to build an increasingly complicated Orbcomm satellite in an increasingly adverse company atmosphere. The dedication of young engineers and young engineering managers struggling to develop a successful spacecraft, as company benefits were diminished and as the “mom and pop” company atmosphere became “corporate,” is a compelling story. Dorsey describes their individual and group travails in an engaging manner. Many of these engineers, after successfully building the first two Orbcomm satellites, were so severely burned out and disillusioned that they decided to leave Orbital—and in some cases aerospace, as well. Other engineers created a major new satellite manufacturing company.
Silicon Sky has been compared to Tracey Kidder’s 1981 Pulitzer-Prize-winning The Soul of a New Machine. The comparison is apt. Neither Dorsey nor Kidder is an historian or an engineer. Both books are full of technical errors and suffer from a lack of context. Both dabble in the sociology of invention and describe the creative process from the point of view of a sympathetic observer. Kidder’s book describes the development of Data General’s 32-bit computer challenge to Digital Equipment Corporation’s (DEC) VAX computer. As in Silicon Sky, the survival of the company was at stake, the engineers were successful, and they paid an emotional price for their struggle. In both, the program manager seems to have withdrawn from the enterprise, the program manager attempted to protect his engineers, and in the process (in some cases) earned their contempt, and, in the end, the program manager stayed with the company.
These two books provide an excellent insight into how a small group of engineers built a competitive product for “love” in a corporate environment that forced them to emphasize cost rather than technical excellence.
David J. Whalen is Antenna’s incoming book review editor. Before taking on those duties, he graciously wrote this review. See page 3 for an introduction.