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Uncommon Laborers

Silicon Sky: How One Small Start-up Went over the Top to Beat the Big Boys

Even before the Apollo missions ended, rocket science had begun to lose its Olympian aura. The Challenger explosion in 1986 completed the process, making many in the U.S. aerospace industry look like reckless bumblers. But with the film “Apollo 13, “the HBO miniseries “From the Earth to the Moon,” and now Gary Dorsey’s Silicon Sky, the engineers behind America’s successes in space are once again being cast as heroes.

Dorsey’s book chronicles the rise of Orbital Sciences Inc., the Virginia startup that invented the Pegasus rocket, the nation’s first new launch vehicle in decades. In the early 1990s the company wooed investors with a promise to launch its own network of small, cheap communications satellites, bringing a global wireless network to market long before competitors such as Motorola. By 1998 it had succeeded, thanks in part to the brashness and savvy of Orbital co-founder David Thompson.

But Dorsey attributes most of Orbital’s success to its engineers. In the tradition of Tracy Kidder and Richard Preston, Dorsey played historian and anthropologist to this high-tech tribe, as they designed and tested Orbital’s first diminutive satellites (built small so that a Pegasus rocket could launch six at once). In the
face of financial uncertainties and technical setbacks, only the engineers’ quasireligious devotion to their work staved off failure, Dorsey concludes.

His search for the sources and costs of such devotion make compelling reading. At first the hotshot engineers were simply thankful for the opportunity to prove themselves. They felt energized by the entrepreneurial small-company atmosphere, so different from the “musty dens of traditional aerospace,” those “decrepit buildings filled with tired old men and dusty mainframes.”

The problem was that the technical challenge of miniaturizing and programming the satellites’ components turned out to be far more devilish than the company’s executives had imagined. As launch dates slipped and investors grew antsy, demands on the engineering team escalated beyond all reason, straining marriages
and leading one mid-level manager to joke that “a holiday is one of those days when the mail’s not there when you get home from work.”

How team members adapted, or failed to adapt, to the unrelenting pressure forms the bulk of Dorsey’s fascinating narrative. Orbital emerges with proven technology and respectable revenues,with the personal sacrifices, according to many Dorsey’s sources, justified by the grandeur of the cause. “We can’t keep working this hard,” says one.”[But] there’s nothing easy about what the company is trying to do. We’re not common laborers, we’re satellite engineers.”