98 Satellites on the Wall

While living near Washington DC was interesting from a cultural point of view, the lifestyle was a bit hectic and the local and national politics was often too much to deal with. Getting a chance to live near family in Arizona and work on a commercial program as audacious as Iridium was a great opportunity. One example of the unique and innovative aspect about Iridium was that they applied redundancy at the spacecraft level. Each vehicle was mostly single-string, so if one satellite failed, you just plugged in another satellite. The incremental cost of spare satellites was cheaper than developing an ultra-reliable spacecraft.

Then there were the aspects of launching 14 satellite in 8 days from three different continents. I did not travel to the launch sites (except once to Vandenberg) but I did a lot of testing and launch operations support from Arizona. It was a challenge and a lot of fun coming up with ways to control and keep track of so many vehicles on orbit. From a power systems engineer perspective, it was the world’s best battery life test you could imagine.

MJM + Iridium 7-29-97
Mike at Vandenberg payload processing facility with several Iridium satellites

Another pleasant part of Iridium is that it may have been the best camaraderie of any group of engineers I have ever worked with. We had a lot of social outings and holiday parties. These were gatherings at peoples homes, although there were very nice company-sponsored events as well. It was a great team, and even though I was a contractor (still a McDonnell Douglas/Boeing employee) in a big company (Motorola) environment, I was treated as much a team member as any Motorola employee.

Iridium was a fascinating program and an engineering wonder, but a business bust. Once all 98 satellites were up and running, the cellular phone industry had become ubiquitous, greatly reducing the need for a service like Iridium. Follow on programs like Teledesic soon faded away and it was time to move on again.