Unless you happen to be a sailor, scientist or survivalist, there’s probably only a middling chance that the name Iridium rings a bell. But a decade and a half ago it was front-page news—an ill-fated satellite-phone company whose failure represented one of the largest bankruptcies in American history.
Launched in 1998, nearly a decade before the iPhone hit the market, the Iridium system was ballyhooed as a technological marvel, which indeed it was: Dozens of interlinked satellites, launched into a low-earth elliptical orbit, would offer coverage anywhere on the globe to anyone who owned a satellite-compatible handset. At a time when cell phone usage stood at only 300 million (the number is 7 billion today), Iridium promised to revolutionize mobile communications forever. It was among the most expensive startups ever, costing more than $5 billion to develop and deploy—a seeming testament to its unbounded potential. As one of the early engineers on the project likewise pointed out, Iridium signaled the first time since God’s acts of original creation that anyone had put a new constellation in the sky.
Atlantic Monthly, 537 pages, $27.50
We shouldn’t smirk at that. Iridium’s innovative logic had a powerful resonance. As John Bloom explains in “Eccentric Orbits,” his engaging and ambitious retelling of the Iridium saga, this was arguably “the first one-world company, offering a one-world service, that was truly blind to nationalities.” Mr. Bloom’s book sets out to tell the story of Iridium’s rise and fall. Along the way, it attempts to unravel the complicated question of how risky new technologies can fail in the near term but succeed in the long…