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Iridium satellites

September 17, 2002

A public radio commentary

Yesterday I looked up in the sky and saw a flash of light that's best described as "technically sweet."

This odd phrase comes from J. Robert Oppenheimer, a father of the first atomic bomb. He used it to describe projects whose technical challenges were so seductive, and whose solutions were so satisfying that they completely absorbed scientists and engineers - in fact, absorbed them so much that they lost sight of whether the project had any benefits.

That "technically sweet" flash of light I saw was the sun reflecting off the metal antenna of an Iridium Satellite. Its one of sixty-six satellites used to create a now defunct global phone service called the Iridium Project.

The idea was this: Using a special type of mobile phone, a person at any point on the Earth - the ocean, the desert, a rain forest, or Mount Everest - could call any phone on the globe. So revolutionary was this idea that it was hailed as the "first pan-national phone network", and called gushingly "a breakthrough in transcending all geopolitical boundaries."

The Iridium project started when a team of Motorola engineers fell in love with the "technically sweet" challenges of making a satellite phone network. They got five billion dollars from Motorola and other investors to pursue this dream, but within a year or two after launching the satellites, the Iridium Project was bankrupt. What the engineers forgot was this: Who wants a phone that cost three thousand dollars, and can't be used indoors. So, when Iridium marketed their phones to business executives they found few takers. Most, of course, already had cell phones that worked just fine, and few really needed to conduct business from a desert or the top of Mount Everest.

Although the Iridium company was bankrupt, their satellites are still there for us to see. At just the right time of day, you can catch that flash of light from a satellite: When its surfaces are angled to the sun, it sends a burst of sunlight to the earth. The trick is to know when to look.

To find out, go to the web site - that's with a hyphen between the "heavens" and "above." If you type in your location, the site will tell you exactly where to stand, what direction to face, what angle to tilt your head toward the sky, and exactly what time to do this - all so you can see a five billion dollar failure. Although I enjoy looking for the satellites, every flash fills me with with trepidation: May my failures never be so public, and may there never be a web site dedicated to instructions on how to view them.

Copyright 2002 William S. Hammack Enterprises