More than 125 years ago, when the five Ball brothers decided to go into business together, they began with only a modest plan to produce wooden-jacketed tin cans. Today Ball Corporation is an international manufacturing company employing over 15,600 people in more than ninety locations worldwide. The high quality of its metal and plastic food and beverage and household containers is recognized around the world. In 2005 it reported net income of $5.75 billion. However, about one-tenth of that income derives not from containers, but from a somewhat different product: aerospace engineering.

Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp.—a wholly owned subsidiary of Ball Corporation that is based in Boulder, Colorado—produces space systems engineering products; telecommunications technology; and electrooptics and cryogenics materials for government and commercial customers. In this arena, Ball’s business plan has involved the creation of remote sensing systems and other solutions for the aerospace and defense markets; Ball develops products and services that are used to collect and interpret information needed to support national defense and scientific discovery. Among its contributions to all four of NASA’s great observatories, Ball Aerospace provided seven instruments for the Hubble Space Telescope—including the corrective optics that space shuttle astronauts delivered to fix the telescope’s originally flawed vision.

Ball’s ability to meet the complex and difficult technology challenges of space exploration was dramatically demonstrated in 2005. On July 4, 2005, the Deep Impact space probe—of which Ball was a primary developer—successfully intercepted a comet in the first-ever attempt to obtain core sampling data from such a celestial body. The encounter with the comet, Tempel 1, occurred nearly 83 million miles from Earth and at speeds approaching 23,000 miles per hour. After imaging the encounter and sailing through the tail of the departing comet in a protected-shield mode, the flyby spacecraft performed flawlessly and remains in orbit as NASA decides if and when it will participate in another mission.

The James Webb Space Telescope

The James Webb Space Telescope, designed to observe extremely faint objects, is scheduled for launch in 2013. Scientists hope JWST will provide information to answer questions about the formation of galaxies and stars, as well as about the early history of our solar system. Named after NASA’s second administrator, James Webb, JWST will journey approximately three months to reach its destination: an orbit 940,000 miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth. The JWST program is led by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and consists of an international team involving the European Space Agency, the Canadian Space Agency, industry, and academia. Northrop Grumman, the primary contractor, leads the design and development effort.

In 2002, Ball Aerospace was selected to lead a consortium of subcontractors that will produce the sophisticated optics for the project. The company is now responsible for the entire optical subsystem that will act as the “eyes” for JWST. But the project involves considerable engineering expertise in other areas besides optics, such as mechanical and electrical engineering. For example, in order to launch the large optical system that the telescope requires, engineers on the JWST team designed a unique approach to the telescope’s primary mirror: they divided it into three sections. The sides of the mirror will be folded back to fit into the launch vehicle, then deployed while in orbit.

No Room for Error

With such a large group of contractors involved in the project, effective communication is essential. Written specifications developed from NASA’s mission objectives are conveyed to the contractors, who then create even more detailed specifications for the electrical, optical, mechanical, and aerospace engineers who are actually designing the various parts. Radiation and thermal engineering specialists must also be brought in at every stage to make sure all components are able to operate within the extreme environmental conditions of space.

Perfection may often be the goal of business operations, but for Ball Aerospace on the James Webb Space Telescope, it is an imperative. Unlike the Hubble telescope, which can be serviced using the space shuttle, JWST’s orbit will be unreachable by astronauts for the foreseeable future. That means the project has virtually zero margin for error.

Given these constraints, development is rigorously monitored with major evaluations at three checkpoints: the requirements stage, the preliminary design stage, and the critical (or detailed) design stage. Each component system passes through each of these phases, and at each checkpoint, project managers and engineers must meet to ensure that specifications are being met, that proper testing protocols are in place, and that programs are meeting schedule and budget targets.

Communication strategies include one- to two-hour-long conference calls every week, to keep teams in various locations in touch, and one- to two-day-long technology interchange meetings (TIMs) every couple of months, where the teams meet to evaluate progress on all component systems of JWST. These face-to-face TIMs provide an important opportunity to discuss design options and the potentials of different technologies. Listening at these meetings is an essential skill as project managers and engineers convey ideas about the capabilities of a particular design and listen to their colleagues’ critiques and alternative ideas.

This part of the listening process is not without challenges. “Sometimes obstacles to good listening can occur when people get emotionally invested in an outcome,” says one project manager at Ball Aerospace. “Accepting someone else’s point in a discussion may mean your own design does not get accepted. In that kind of situation, I try to encourage an engineer to just ‘sit’ with the [new] idea for a couple of days. That almost always works to refocus the person on the overall goals of the project and make the right decision.”

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