Ball Corp’s unlikely journey from soda cans to satellites
The surprising link between the James Webb Space Telescope, a next-gen weather satellite, and your favorite frosty beverage.
THE ENGINEERS in bunny suits, hairnets, and masks stand around a vertical white dish about 6 feet tall—their clean-room attire preventing any biological sloughing from contaminating the equipment. From the dish’s edges, articulated black arms extend outward, connecting it to an adjacent metal cylinder.
On its own, each part could be mistaken for a UFO. And indeed, they are destined for a life beyond Earth: Next year, they will shoot to orbit as part of a larger satellite called the Weather System Follow-on–Microwave (or WSF-M). The dish—a sophisticated antenna—will catch faint microwaves emitted by Earth, whose undulating characteristics reveal weather conditions below.
A yellow crane looms over the team, and photons from fluorescent lights bathe the whole room in white. Preparing to test the mechanical arms’ mobility, the engineers cross their own, nod, move forward, back away. Finally, the active part of the experiment begins. Slowly and smoothly, the limbs lift the antenna in an upward arc. Then the arms fully outstretch—V as in victory—positioning the antenna so it hovers above the cylinder.
The engineers are obviously happy. One pumps a fist skyward.
The United States Space Force, the branch of the military dedicated to defending US interests above Earth and that runs the WSF-M program, was also likely very happy to learn of the successful trial, conducted in fall 2021 and called the main reflector deployment test. Navigating to the nearest 7-Eleven, you might forget that the military, specifically the Space Force, owns America’s GPS spacecraft. And when the forecast says to expect rain en route to your Slurpees, you have Defense Department orbiters to thank for that prediction too.
The meteorological hardware that makes it all possible is getting up there, though—in age, not orbital height. And that’s why the engineers were gathered to watch the painstakingly slow deployment of a brand-new antenna: In 2023, once it’s fully assembled, WSF-M will launch and help blow weather observations and predictions into the 21st century.
The previous generation of military weather satellites, launched more than two decades ago, can’t tell the wind’s direction over the ocean’s surface, just its speed. WSF-M will do both, and with a bigger antenna—the one engineers watched unfold last autumn—than past spacecraft. It will also reveal storms’ structures (and those of calm days) in high def. These capabilities, and the long-term data record enabled by WSF-M and others that follow, will help humans monitor climate change and perhaps take steps to mitigate its more turbulent effects. Day by day, detailed measurements will enable better predictions, because the most important factor in knowing what the weather will be is being able to pin down precisely what the weather is right now.
Even if you’re well aware of the military’s role in your turn-by-turn navigation and forecasting apps, you might not necessarily be wise to who’s building its latest meteorological hardware upgrade: Ball Corporation, more famous for its canning products of yore and the ubiquitous aluminum pop-top containers of beverage concocters nationwide. Yet Ball has also wielded its manufacturing expertise to fashion the mirror system for the James Webb Space Telescope, whose power to see distant and dim celestial objects in glorious detail gives astronomers heart palpitations; construct the Kepler space telescope, which discovered thousands of exoplanets; and repair the flawed mirror on Hubble, whose crisp images now evoke awe and delight. WSF-M is one of dozens of high-flying jobs on the company’s current roster.
Ball, with its strangely split personality, works on some of the most advanced spacecraft spinning around Earth while also producing very terrestrial, banal packaging. “I don’t get it,” people tell CEO Dan Fisher all the time. There are commonalities, though. Both ends of the business rely on metal and glass expertise, and soon both may help human life on Earth grow more sustainable.
WHEN BALL was founded in 1880, no one—no earthly thing—had ever been to space. A satellite had appeared only in a sci-fi story. There wasn’t a US weather agency, let alone an Air Force. And Ball was more interested in kerosene than the climate.
The company’s origin story is well covered, an old-timey version of Apple’s “started in a garage” founding myth: The five Ball brothers of Buffalo, New York, got a $200 loan from their uncle to start a tin-can company. They jacketed the vessels with wood and sold them as containers for liquids like paint and kerosene. Within a few years, they expanded into production of the glass canning jars now holding countless varieties of homemade pickles and sweet teas.
Journalist Todd Neff had heard the narrative plenty in his work as a science and environment reporter for Boulder, Colorado’s Daily Camera. Neff often covered Ball’s doings in the Denver metro area, where it had moved its headquarters in 1998. In 2005, as he watched the company shoot a spacecraft called Deep Impact straight toward a distant comet, he thought there might be more to the saga, which he documents in his book From Jars to the Stars.
By the 1930s, Neff learned, the company was headquartered in Muncie, Indiana, and making 190 million jars per year—enough to give the entire US population about one and a half per person annually (note: not the distribution strategy). During World War II, Ball diversified its product line to make refrigerator gaskets and rubber and metal parts for cars and planes—and, like many US manufacturers, started working for the military, producing shells and battery casings.
Edmund Ball, son of the Ball founder of the same name, took over the company in 1948 with a far bigger vision than providing people with a place to put their jam. He was a pilot who’d also fought in WWII. Both of those things had shown him what technology could do—and how big a business it was.
As Neff documents, he aspired to create an R&D organization that would be the Bell Labs of Ball. As a first step, in 1955, Ball acquired a Colorado-based company called Control Cells, which sold weighing machines that measured how heavy trucks, bridges, trains, and even houses were. But Control Cells was plagued by poor production design and iffy finances. The pivotal event for Ed Ball was instead a simple visit with a not-so-simple neighbor: Control Cells’ general manager was a neighbor of physicist David Stacey, who led the space hardware group at the University of Colorado.
One afternoon in 1956, Ed Ball and Control Cells’ manager knocked on Stacey’s door, and the boys were soon sipping drinks and talking in Stacey’s yard, with a view of the jutting rock formations of Boulder’s Flatirons. Their conversation may have wound around to electronics, Neff surmises, and toward the idea that Stacey might provide technical help to the struggling Control Cells.
While that didn’t exactly happen, Stacey left the university before year’s end and joined Ball to form the Ball Brothers Research Corporation, an aerospace subsidiary. Stacey helmed the spaceship’s technical operations from Boulder, now the home of the company’s high-tech efforts.
In 1959, the group’s first big break—developing a NASA system that would use the sun to help satellites orient themselves—led to its second: creating a series of Orbiting Solar Observatory spacecraft to watch our star’s roughly 11-year solar cycle for the space agency.
The program’s first satellite debuted three years later—and at $2.3 million, three times the proposed cost—traveling to Florida’s Cape Canaveral launch site in what Neff calls a “giant can.” Appropriate. Hours before liftoff, engineers dismantled the spacecraft to fix last-minute communication and propulsion problems before it slipped the surly bonds of Earth on March 7. In 1964, a rocket booster attached to a second solar satellite ignited in a Cape Canaveral building, killing three technicians. A fourth craft never made it to orbit.
BALL’S AEROSPACE operations have come a long way since then. The company currently holds about $1 billion worth of active government contracts, a number that includes its work on WSF-M.
Right now, the team is building, piece by piece, WSF-M’s weather-sensing instruments and the space vehicle that will house them. One big milestone was the “spin test,” in which the antenna successfully twirled like a slow Olympic figure skater, a rotation it will need to do constantly to sweep its gaze across the planet from orbit.
Cory Springer, Ball’s director of Weather and Environment, wasn’t able to be there in person, but he gives the video five stars. Seeing the spacecraft do what it would need to do in space made the forecasting future feel real. That’s important to Springer. Before coming to Ball, he spent years in the Navy as a METOC (a meteorology and oceanography officer), giving weather and ocean forecasts to the Navy—often using satellite observations. That data may have even saved his life.
Springer recalls a time in the ’90s—when the internet was still on the edge of robust connectivity—when he was aboard the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy. The ship had just finished a two-year refurbishment in the Philadelphia shipyards, and its crew took it out for sea trials. Since they weren’t on a deployment, they didn’t have the normal battery of weather equipment that would have allowed them to do things like track the storm over radar. “All we had on board was a satellite receiver,” says Springer. It was enough to let them know that a hurricane was unexpectedly scurrying up from the south.
The electromagnetic waves from the sat slid into the receiver, bearing data on their backs. Briefing the captain, Springer looked out on 63-foot swells. “We had to make some decisions on where to run,” he says.
The spacecraft behind that data are part of the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program, which has been around since 1961. The DoD has periodically swapped them out, like parents replacing expired goldfish. Lockheed Martin made the current three, which launched in 2003, 2006, and 2009, respectively. The Space Force wants to trade them—and the program—for modern technology. WSF-M is the first, and major, part of a two-satellite upgrade.
Its ability to see microwaves rather than visible light is key. Microwaves shoot straight through clouds, snow, and rain. That’s important, because nobody much needs to know about the near-term forecast on a perfectly sunny day. “They’re all-weather,” says Quinn Remund, WSF-M’s chief engineer. Other kinds of satellites can sense only the “top” of climatic conditions.
Much of today’s weather information comes from active microwave systems, like radar, which emit electromagnetic waves that bounce back, revealing what’s in their path. (They’re mostly situated on Earth’s surface.) WSF-M doesn’t cast its own signals. Instead, it passively monitors natural waves coming from the planet. These undulations are very small and so must be picked up by sensitive receivers. “Pull them out of the noise, so to speak,” says Remund. WSF-M also has sensors that can discern the orientation of the microwaves, a quality called polarization.
That’s key to another major goal with WSF-M: to measure both the direction and the speed of wind at the surface of the ocean. For the most part, current satellites can tell only how fast the wind is whipping, but not which way. That’s a sticking point in, say, the middle of the ocean, where a tropical storm might be brewing, but where no terrestrial equipment might exist to keep track of what’s going on.
WSF-M will also measure how strong such cyclones are, a fact that hinges on wind speed. Couple that with its general wind and precipitation measurements, and meteorologists will be able to understand precisely where a “weather event” is and better predict where it’s likely to head.
WSF-M also checks out the conditions in space—for example, how the sun’s activity is showing up near Earth. The particles and energy from its outbursts (aka solar flares) can mess with satellites’ electronics, communications, and even orbits.
Beyond its main goals, WSF-M can also characterize snow depth, soil moisture, and sea ice, all three of which influence weather and inform DoD actions across the globe. Does a plane, for example, require extra fuel to fly around a hailstorm? Should a ship sail sideways to catch a tailwind? Should you gas up a snowcat or slip on mud tires?
Obviously, those factors matter to more than, as the lingo goes, war fighters. They’re useful to anyone who needs an accurate forecast—and the Space Force isn’t stingy with the information. “NOAA uses this data,” says Charlotte Gerhart of the Space Force’s Space System Command Production Corps. “NASA uses the data. The information is available to forecasters worldwide.”
The sensors from a new generation of meteorological satellites might someday even help audit government and corporate behavior, Ball CEO Fisher says, revealing whether these entities are fulfilling their climate obligations, like those involving carbon credits, a system in which companies trade the rights to emit certain amounts of greenhouse gases. “You need some pretty rich data to figure out whether what we’re all signing up for is actually happening,” he says.
And the more data the better, in chief engineer Remund’s view. Though meteorological utility does strike close to home. In December 2021, a windstorm with gusts reaching 100 miles per hour spun up a grass fire, sending it into suburban Denver neighborhoods and torching more than 1,000 homes—including those of Ball employees. “If there’s something we can do, in some small way, to improve weather forecasts, for the war fighter but also for people in general, that’s something worth doing,” he says.
OUT IN an industrial area of the town of Golden, Colorado, Ball’s main can production plant still occupies the same building it did more than 50 years ago—when the company bought a can-maker called Jeffco Manufacturing to get into the business. Not coincidentally, the town is also home to the Coors Brewery and a cowboy aesthetic it strives to maintain even as most people live in condos or suburban mansions. The Ball plant pumps out more pop-tops than Jeffco’s foremen could ever have anticipated. Whether you’d like a squat 12-ounce Miller, a “12 sleek” skinny-can White Claw, a 24-ounce gulper of Monster, or the twist-off aluminum bottle that actor Jason Momoa puts his branded water in, you’ll find it here.
Today, Ball is the largest can manufacturer in the world, producing more than 50 billion per year. It hasn’t created the jars that made it famous since the early 1990s, when it spun off and then eventually sold that part of the business. But the can strategy is changing: The company has upped the minimum order size—a move that squeezes out smaller customers like craft brewers. Today, Ball seems interested in the big guys, not the small-batch dudes. In space parlance, the flagship missions over the Discovery-class variety.
In a lot of ways, what happens inside the old Jeffco plant is the opposite of Ball’s aerospace processes. Its orbital specialty is bespoke, novel, highly sophisticated, uniquely faceted diamonds. At the plant, meanwhile, 7 million cans that are at least close cousins get made en masse, each day.
On the production floor, sheets of aluminum spool out like taffy, pulled into a machine that stamps them into cup-shaped containers. Those “cups” get stretched by a “bodymaker,” then washed. After that, they’re sent for the “decorations,” as the company calls the visual indicator of whatever you’re drinking. Logos print onto the cylinders one color at a time, so the images only gradually reveal themselves. Nozzles spray a coating on the inside so fluids never touch or corrode the metal. The cans get a neck, then a place for the lid to attach. Finally, the tab-making machine, sounding like an automatic weapon, presses another sheet of aluminum 750 times per minute. Near the tabs, mobs of empty cans march along at head height, in their final stages, twitching forward in unison like zombies. They’ll eventually be filled and sealed by those who make the liquids.
Throughout the process, high-speed cameras scan for defects and yea-or-nay thousands of cans per minute. Those that fail a robot’s test get tossed into a bin on the side, bound for recycling.
“Safety comes in cans,” proclaims one of many don’t-hurt-yourself signs above the factory floor. “I can. You can. We can.”
As Ball inches toward its sesquicentennial, it’s in the process of curving its business again, trying to advance a new metal product: the Ball Aluminum Cup, a SOLO-style container. It’s meant to replace both pint glasses in bars and the tall plastic cups you get in big venues like sports stadiums.
It’s good business and good for the planet, goes the financial and philosophical logic. After all, the industry claims, three-quarters of the industrial and commercial aluminum ever produced is still in circulation. “It’s going to come back, and it might come back in the form of an automobile or construction,” says CEO Fisher. “It’s not going to be litter. It’s not going to be in a landfill, and it’s not going to be in the ocean.” Or at least some of it won’t be: The EPA estimates people actually recycle—rather than toss out—less than half of metal beverage cans.
The aluminum that makes it to the recycling plant will be reincarnated. It will have pivoted. Beyond that, Fisher speculates, perhaps between the recyclable cans and the climate-monitoring satellites, Ball’s environmentally friendly focus will finally pinch the gap between its odd-couple businesses. A neat, if not tidy, package at last.
This story originally ran in the Summer 2022 Metal issue of PopSci. Read more PopSci+ stories.