Our Fluid Mixing Enclosures (FMEs) for our experiment were due in mid-September, and to prepare our samples we visited NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. What we needed exactly was to cut our 2 lb tin lead-free solder bars into 120 mm by 5 mm by 2 mm strips and solder tin lead-free solder onto a double-sided copper clad fiberglass circuit board. If you’ve never worked with lead-free solder, let me tell you: that stuff is the devil.
We had the idea to visit Goddard because of our relationship with Lyudmyla Panashchenko, who helped Gabe and Joe during Mission 4 by providing a “magic” formula for accelerated tin whisker growth, as well our relative inexperience and lack of resources. So, Gabe, Joe, Mrs. Voigt, and I piled into the school’s minivan and trekked up to Maryland. Luckily, we had my handy-dandy GPS, BABS. If it wasn’t for good ol’ BABS, we never would have survived the trip. We had quite a few scares along the way, including but not limited to getting lost in a rough neighborhood of DC at 1 am and being pulled over by a DC police officer shortly afterwards.
We left at noon on a Sunday and arrived at our hotel after midnight. First thing in the morning, Mrs. Voigt drove us to NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and Dr. Henning Leidecker, a senior failure analyst at NASA Electronics Parts and Packaging (NEPP), met us at the gates. Unfortunately, we were unable to meet Lyudmyla Panashchenko and Jay Brusse, Dr. Leidecker’s cohorts in all things tin whisker, as they were out of town.
Believe it or not, I was actually a little disappointed–initially, that is– by Goddard. I’m not sure what I was expecting exactly, but this typical looking, “government facility”-type building, surrounded by long grassy areas and low, brick buildings didn’t match the towering, futuristic buildings out of a science-fiction novel I was imagining.
But once we entered some of the buildings, I was absolutely blown away. Dr. Leidecker showed us the clean room where the James Webb Space Telescope, which will replace the Hubble Telescope currently zooming around the Earth in orbit, is being constructed; the building from which the Hubble and the Curiosity are operated; and, of course, the magnificent gift shop. They had quite a few mugs of Albert Einstein bicycling through the universe. I highly recommend buying a few.
After an hour or two of exploring America’s first Space Flight Center, Dr. Leidecker took us to his lab. We had such a fantastic time trying out the instruments. Dr. Leidecker used an X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy (XPS) on our tin solder bars to ensure that it was really 99.3% tin, 0.7% copper. He also brought out a cadmium binder clip that was coated with cadmium whiskers for us to observe. Scientifically speaking, that’s pretty cool stuff.
The folks at Goddard attempted to cut the tin solder bars with a hacksaw, but they were unable to do so to the necessary specifications with the tools in their lab. There were certainly tools that could do so in other buildings, but we only had access to Leidecker’s lab.
To express our thanks for his gracious hospitality, we gave him the Saturn V circuit board’s that we had wanted to use as our samples before the devastation of Hurricane Goldstein. He was very excited about that and immediately ran to look at it under a microscope. Actually, he ended up finding metal whiskers on the circuit board. It is probably a really good thing that we did not try to grow tin whiskers on that board, since it already had whiskers of a different composition.
Our trip to NASA Goddard was simply a life-changing experience. The curiosity of the scientists and engineers at Goddard is infectious and left us all awestruck of the many ways humanity is exploring their corner of the universe.