Inside One Company’s Stalled Attempt to Blanket the World with Internet Connectivity

10/25/2016

Iridium could ensure that no airliner ever is lost again—if only it could get off the ground.

Iridium Communications, a $790 million satellite telecommunications company based in McLean, Va., was gearing up to launch the first of a new generation of satellites when the news came in from Cape Canaveral. A rocket—the very same type expected to carry Iridium’s new satellites into orbit—had exploded, mere months before Iridium’s own launch was scheduled. An investigation into the mishap would set back future launches indefinitely. The roll-out of Iridium’s new $5 billion satellite constellation, the backbone of its entire business model, was off to an inauspicious start.

All of this happened in 1997, when Iridium first set out to blanket the globe with satellite-based connectivity. (The rocket, a Lockheed Martin Delta II carrying an Air Force GPS satellite, exploded shortly after liftoff in January of that year.) Almost two decades later, it’s not unreasonable for Iridium CEO Matt Desch to feel déja vu. His company was preparing to launch a new, much-improved constellation of communications satellites—that is, until the explosion of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on the launchpad last month put those plans on hold.

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