We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not an Insider? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

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.

This story is part of our May/June 1999 Issue
See the rest of the issue

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.”

Become an MIT Technology Review Insider for in-depth analysis and unparalleled perspective.

Subscribe today
Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Insider Plus.
  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus the digital magazine, extensive archive, ad-free web experience, and discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events.

    See details+

    Print + Digital Magazine (6 bi-monthly issues)

    Unlimited online access including all articles, multimedia, and more

    The Download newsletter with top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox

    Technology Review PDF magazine archive, including articles, images, and covers dating back to 1899

    10% Discount to MIT Technology Review events and MIT Press

    Ad-free website experience

You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. This is your last free article this month. for unlimited online access. You've read all your free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for more, or for unlimited online access. for two more free articles, or for unlimited online access.