'Silicon Sky': Rush to satellite heaven

April 11, 1999|By M. G. Lord | By M. G. Lord,Special to the Sun

"Silicon Sky," by Gary Dorsey. Perseus Books. 320 pages. $26.

There's something un-American about Gary Dorsey's "Silicon Sky: How One Small Start-Up Went Over the Top to Beat the Big Boys into Satellite Heaven." Or perhaps the story is quintessentially American, though it flies in the face of our country's idealized notions about free enterprise. Dorsey's tale is not one of first-rate engineers working long hours to produce a first-rate satellite. He writes of compromise and mediocrity -- how a team of the best and brightest deliberately threw together a "B minus" satellite to meet crippling schedule and financial constraints.

At the center of Dorsey's story is David Thompson, who, when freshly out of Harvard Business School, founded Orbital Sciences, a lean, efficient post-Cold War aerospace company that would challenge the way the bloated leviathans did business. And indeed, Thompson's first major accomplishment, the Pegasus launch vehicle, lived up to its promise, paving the way for a commercial space revolution by reducing launch costs.

"Silicon Sky" chronicles Thompson's next endeavor -- the creation of a satellite network to serve the billion-dollar market for personal communications. Thompson and his team realize their short-term goals, but, Dorsey ponders, at what cost?

By the book's end, Orbital Sciences has grown increasingly corporate and Thompson appears out of touch.

It takes an especially good writer to make an un-heroic story compelling and, Dorsey, the author of two previous nonfiction books, is up to the challenge.

Gracefully, and with an allergy to cliches, he makes tough, technical concepts both comprehensible and engaging.

Readers will have no problem understanding what a satellite's attitude control system does; Dorsey compares the process to moving "an elephant on ice skates by blowing at it through a straw." He also crystalizes many engineers' deepest fear -- becoming "another mid-career techno-weenie with an MIT beaver ring."

Dorsey conveys the excitement of working for a small team -- scrounging for cheap parts, baking "epoxied transponders" in "kitchen ovens." Yet for all his talk of a sea change in engineering culture, he seems oddly complacent about the antediluvian way male engineers continue to relate to women.

Dorsey himself refers to male engineers by their last names, yet calls female engineers Grace Chang and Annette Mirantes by their first names, as if they were cleaning ladies. Dorsey's name use doesn't always break down along gender lines. For no apparent reason, senior engineer Mike Carpenter joins the girls as "Mike."

I also wished Dorsey had written more about Chang, whose pithy one-liners make her the Dorothy Parker of the commercial satellite industry. Dorsey observes that she had "read books by Gunther Grass and other people no one else had heard of," but reveals little more.

Thompson and his wife Catherine are more fully realized, including the disparity in their technical backgrounds. "I don't even like to watch the Discovery channel," she blurts. Thompson also apologizes for their lack of children, a gesture that didn't make sense until I read Dorsey's description of the Orbital Sciences' company picnic. Like Paleolithic hunters with pregnant mates, the "boozy" engineers sat around guessing whose spouse "would bring along the next infant."

Without Dorsey's deft writing, "Silicon Sky" would fall flat. Instead it stands as an uncompromising, definitive monument to an inconclusive, trade-off-ridden project.

M. G. Lord, a former columnist and syndicated political cartoonist, wrote "Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll." Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. She is also working on a history of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Pub Date: 04/11/99

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