Disappointment billowed in the air, higher than the plumes of white smoke that burst over the Cape Canaveral skies on that clear June afternoon. A sinking feeling resided in the pits of stomachs, as the world watched the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket explode a few minutes after lift-off. This feeling, “oh no not again,” was compounded for a team of student scientists who had experienced this unwelcome feeling just eight months prior as they witnessed the first loss of their ISS-bound research project, “Tin Whiskers,” in the Orb-3 mishap in October 2014.
But, as the smoke cleared and the journey to return to flight commenced, this determined team was inspired by the same spirit that has fueled our space program for generations—that discovery is not defined by our failures, challenges, or losses but rather by our resilience.
“Science is a process of failures, re-groupings, and discoveries,” said Rachel Lindbergh, student scientist on the Tin Whiskers team. “These setbacks were devastating in the moment, but my team saw each mishap as an opportunity to improve our experiment. We’ll cherish the end result all the more after conquering what we have faced.”
Lindbergh and Joseph Garvey, co-principal investigators for Tin Whiskers, are involved in the Student Space-flight Experiments Program (SSEP), a program created and managed by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education. The Tin Whiskers team was selected from an SSEP competition led by Palmetto Scholars Academy in North Charleston, South Carolina, in which hundreds of pre-college students designed and proposed microgravity experiments.
The science of Tin Whiskers involves studying tiny crystalline structures that form around tin-plated metals commonly used in electronic components. The formation of these tiny structures, whose growth may be enhanced during spaceflight, is problematic for electronic equipment and can trigger malfunction within devices ranging from small electronic parts to satellites.
Lindbergh and Garvey have spent the last two years working to send their project to the ISS to test the hypothesis that spaceflight promotes tin whisker growth. The Tin Whiskers team hopes their research will expand on current understanding of how spaceflight affects electronic devices—in hopes of ultimately improving manufacturing processes for electrical components used in spaceflight and aviation.
After months of ardent work and collaboration, Tin Whiskers is slated to launch again on SpaceX-8, and the team is excited to see their project come to fruition.
“Being involved in this experiment opened my eyes to the true collaborative nature of science and to all the mysteries left undiscovered,” Lindbergh said. “The possibilities for discovery are immense, and it is inspiring to know that my generation’s future scientists and researchers will soon be contributing.”
SSEP is a comprehensive science, technology, engineering, and mathematics program that provides students with the opportunity to conduct authentic spaceflight research. The program is enabled, in part, through contributions from CASIS and a strategic partnership with flight-experiment service provider, NanoRacks, LLC.