NASA Hardware Techniques: Soldering Space Electronics Like It’s 1958

[PeriscopeFilms] on YouTube has many old TV adverts and US government reels archived on their channel, with some really interesting subjects to dive in to. This first one we’re highlighting here is a 1958 film about NASA Soldering Techniques (Video, embedded below), which has some fascinating details about how things were done during the Space Race, and presumably, continue to be done. The overall message about cleanliness couldn’t really be any clearer if they tried — it’s so critical it looks like those chaps in the film spend far more time brushing and cleaning than actually wielding those super clean soldering irons.

Of particular note are some of the details of wire stripping and jointing with components, such as the use of a hot-wire device to remove the insulation from wire, rather than use the kind of stripper we have lying around that cuts into the insulation and slightly distorts the wire in the process. That just won’t do. If they did have to use a cutting-type stripper, it must be precisely the right size for job, and calibrated daily.

The road to the Moon is paved with calibrated wire strippers.

When soldering a pre-tinned wire to a leaded component, a clamp is required to prevent movement of the wire, as is a thermal shunt on the component lead to protect the delicate component from excess heat. They even specify how much to wrap a wire around a terminal to be soldered, never bending the wire more than 180 degrees.

The bottom line in all this is, is that the work must be as perfect as is possible, as there is very little chance of sending someone up to fix a dodgy soldering job, once the assembly is hurtling around the planet. They call it too much of a science to be called an art and too much art to be called a science, and we can sure appreciate that.

As you would expect (and it’s not exactly a big secret) NASA has some very exacting standards for assembly of all hardware, like this great workmanship standard, which is well worth studying. Soldering is an important subject for many of us, we’ve covered the subject of solder metallurgy, as well as looking at how ancient hardware hackers soldered without the benefit of much modern knowledge.

Thanks [Mike] and [TheFinn] for the tip!

39 thoughts on “NASA Hardware Techniques: Soldering Space Electronics Like It’s 1958

  1. Here are a few current standards used for soldering and inspecting:
    IPC-A-610G: Acceptability of Electronic Assemblies
    IPC J-STD-001G: Requirements for soldered electrical and electronic assemblies
    These documents are public, a quick google search should pull them up.

  2. 50+ year old instructional films seem to be about the pinnacle of explanation / training for a lot of things – the ones about vehicles and mechanics such as how a diff works are still unbeaten.

    1. I had already studied differentials before watching that video – but if I hadn’t, I’m 100% confident I would have understood it after one watch. It’s very good.

    2. Mac’s story arc was inspiring. Old dogs really can learn new tricks.
      Joking aside, old instructional videos are amazing, I wish there was a YouTube channel that collected them.

      1. Old dogs don’t want to learn new things. They spend their days sleeping and eating, even going out is a chore. But Pokey is 15.5 years old,pushing the limits for a labrador.

    3. I have an original 1965 service manual for my 65 Oldsmobile cutlass F85 and the clarity and details in the hand drawn diagrams are phenomenal. In no way do you have confusion on what you are looking for. Good luck with anything modern

  3. This makes me wonder when High Reliability Soldering (HRS) became a thing.

    HRS PCBs had teardrop shaped through hole lands and the component lead travelled along the bottom surface of the PCB towards the thinner end of the teardrop (even before soldering) and then had the tail kicked up at an angle and cut not far from that so that the tail passed through the whole solder joint and it was then an indicator that the solder had wicked through the entire path and the metal to metal contact (it was held that way with force during soldering) largely avoided the resistance of the solder and was less pone to heating and later dry joints.

    The second purpose of the kicked up tail is that it would help any remaining oxides or contamination transfer to the soldering iron tip as you withdrew the soldering iron.

    This was in avionics from quite some time ago. I can’t remember i it was commercial or military. Most would suggest military as a hunch but I have seen many things in military that just would not be in any way acceptable in commercial. But that was a long time back to.

    And as a bit of tongue in cheek prodding of my American friends, this video proves that there is an “L” in solder.

    Keep in mind though that American is my fourth language after English, Australian and Canadian.

    1. I have always wondered why people say “soddering.” I’m an American. It was always “soldering” with an “L.” People who said “soddering” were regarded as unlettered Philistines.

      Either it is a regional thing, or it has changed since I was a kid.

  4. I remember an article that quoted the NASA paper.

    I don’t know if they still publish them, but NASA did issue Technical Briefs, short items that had come about as a result of problem solving. Since it was a government agency, the information was free to industry, or hobbyists.

    There were probably solder related briefs, and others might be of interest.

      1. It’s more that they charge by the second, so the time codes let you license exactly the footage you need for your project.

        It is annoying but it probably cuts down on people ‘forgetting’ to license footage.

  5. Yeah, well, NASA did also wrap an extra copper strand around the stripped cable before crimping/soldering connectors when they failed to be metric as the rest of the world they were buying cable/connectors from. (I think it was cable from France and connectors from US or vice versa)
    That is a bodge-job worhty a lawnmower repair, but it went to space.

      1. I said it in a comment to recent post, it’s a word that you read before you hear it, and even when you here it, it may be some other kid guessing at how you pronounce it.

        I first read “astronomy” in a comic book, and even after I heard the word spoken, I still reverted to my way, until I adjusted.

  6. [@ 3:44] “…no one can tell you exactly why this happens
    its simply one of those unpredictable quirks of nature
    that the Human race without completely understanding
    can harness to its own advantage…”

    I was born in the year that the video was created, and was classically trained as a Technician with Lab time on the Soldering pencil and the Weller Gun. In 1979, the subject was actually on one of the C.E.T. tests, but it was in 1997 that I learned the Chemical nature (at Northern Telecom) of the Solder eutectic phase process.

    The alloy of tin and lead is not crystalline in structure, unlike most pure metals (and many alloys). This has the effect of lowering the melting point because the atoms can execute a phase change much more easily when not bound into a lattice structure. Also once the molten solder comes into contact with certain other metals (notably copper), chemical reactions begin that speed the flow of solder. An alloy is a homogeneous mixture of two or more metals. Their structures are more complicated than those of pure metals because the two or more types of metal atoms have different sizes. An example is similar to a Storekeeper trying to stack oranges and grapefruit in the same pile. Some alloys are softer than the component metals. The presence of bigger lead atoms (radius 180 pm) compared with tin’s (radius 145 pm) help to soften and lower the solder alloys’ melting point or eutectic temperature. Alloys typically have a melting point lower than that of the pure elements they contain.

  7. “Too much science to be art and too much art to be science” — some would call that the definition of engineering. Others would say it’s the definition of craft.

  8. As a German, I’m really glad that our ex-scientists did manage to successfully educate those uncivilized NASA guys how to properly do things..

    Just kidding. :)

    These old videos are fascinating and very educational.
    Same goes for books, by the way. Just have a look at those old science books (about electricity/radio, physics, plants) from the 19th century/early 20th century.
    The dedication and the quality of hand drawn graphics is awesome.
    Gratefully, most if not all of the basic knowledge is still useful these days.
    So these old books can still be used to learn the basics. 🙂

  9. I was in Miniature Component Repair School as an Avionics Tech in the Marine Corps, which I believed used NASA standards. They said that the difference in the weight of an aircraft between using the preferred amount of solder and the Maximum Allowable Amount on all the joints in the aircraft was 2000 pounds. We used 63%/37% lead/tin solder, AKA eutectic solder for all repairs. Goes to show lots of little things can really add up.

  10. a long time ago, in an industry far, far, away (aerospace in the mid eighties), my first real engineering company/job required me to attend the training to become “nasa certified”. at the time, most of the components were “discreet”, and the primary cause of failure was bad/cold solder joints. the cost of board failure during the integration/test phases of a project involving aircraft could be measured in the millions, and downstream possibly in human lives.

    1. Oddly, no one else here has mentioned High Reliability Soldering (HRS) here which is a number of steps above the video and probably significantly later.

      My memory tells me it was a requirement for avionics but it seems that perhaps it was military. I was sure it was avionics somehow.

      In reality it could still be practised with through hole and wave soldering (or manual soldering) but some features of HRS could also be adapted for SDM. HRS PCBs were specifically deigned for HRS it wasn’t just a soldering technique but a system of design.

      1. Yes, quite a bit has changed. There are so many errors in this film it quite laughable. But it’s still relevant to soldering hobby discreet components. You probably noticed the two soldering irons, one was for 60/40 the other 63/37. The tips were changed daily if not more often.

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