But by the time the system went live in late 1998, another technology - the cellular phone - had beaten Iridium to the ears of the world's globetrotters. Worse, press coverage was merciless. Handsets that would have seemed svelte in the early '90s now appeared chunky. The phone's telescoping antenna proved of little use inside offices. Or next to buildings. Or under trees. Calls broke off in midsentence.

It soon became clear that Iridium would never attract the millions of customers called for by its business plan. In fact, sales were so bad the company couldn't even keep up with day-to-day operating costs, let alone pay off what it owed for the building and launch of its satellites.

Not that Iridium was alone. So promising had the satellite phone market once seemed that at least three other companies tried to compete with Iridium. One, ICO, actually beat Iridium into bankruptcy. Another, Globalstar - despite superior phones, cheaper satellites, and more reasonable expectations - never convinced skeptical customers and disillusioned investors that it was not simply another Iridium. "We were tarnished by the same brush," is how Globalstar spokesman Mac Jeffery puts it.

For a moment, it even seemed the whole satellite phone concept would end in a grand spectacle. After failing to find anyone to buy its assets, Iridium asked a bankruptcy court for permission to "de-orbit" its 66 satellites. Yet as sky-watchers prepared to enjoy an unprecedented light show - as Iridium turned its satellites into a multitude of meteors - a group of investors suddenly swooped in with a last-minute deal. Satellites, ground stations, and technologies, all went for $25 million, or less than one-half of 1 percent of what they had cost to build.