LU, LHS collaborative science experiment to be tested in space

In a no-gravity environment, concrete is weaker than on Earth and therefore not a material that can be used to build structures in space. However, two young high school scientists, working with Dr. Nicholas Brake, Lamar University associate professor of industrial engineering, believe that by adding polyvinyl alcohol fibers to concrete in space, it will be strengthened. Their theory will soon be tested at the International Space
International Space Station Project
Austin Havard, Nicholas Brake, Lucas Mason

Austin Havard and Lucas Mason, seniors at Lumberton High School, were selected to participate in a Student Spaceflight Experiments Program through the non-profit organization, The National Center for Earth and Space Science Education. Their proposed project was one of 34 selected in December 2019 from student proposals in the U.S., Brazil and Canada.

“We hope the fibers will reduce porosity and that we’ll have a material that is viable for structures in space on Mars, or even on the Moon – that’s a bit closer. This is something they want to do in the coming years,” said Havard, who aspires to be an industrial or mechanical engineer.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the mission carrying the science experiments to the International Space Station has been delayed, but Havard and Mason finally got the call that the mission is a go for Dec. 2.

Although the students have been meeting with Brake periodically to work on the project during the last year, the three met in an engineering lab at LU to mix the final three samples for the actual experiment to be conducted on the ISS.

The samples will travel on SpaceX but only one of the samples will be used for the experiment. The other two samples will be control samples.  

 “We anticipate the return of our concrete specimen in January at which point we will complete the experiments. We intend to run some strength tests and look at the specimen under the microscopic to assess the fiber distribution, pore structure and overall stability of material,” said Brake, who admits that he “loves” concrete and is thrilled to be involved in a project using concrete out of the Earth’s atmosphere. “If the samples come back in good form, it could provide us with some good insight on how cement binds with fibers in space.”

To prepare the samples for experimentation in space, Havard and Mason placed concrete and polyvinyl alcohol fibers in the middle of a tube. They clamped the tube on each end and poured water into the space between the clamps and the end of the tube. They then closed the end of the tubes.  Astronauts on the ISS will unclamp the tube and mix the water, concrete and fibers by shaking the tube vigorously for 90 seconds. Project results are expected to be reported back to Earth to Havard and Mason sometime this summer.

“It has been a pleasure to work with Austin and Lucas and the rest of the Lumberton ISD team over the last few months,” said Brake. “The project has provided the students with a wonderful opportunity to conduct research, actively lead a project, and work with advanced testing equipment at the Lamar University Materials and Structural Engineering Lab. This experience should enrich their appreciation of the research process and encourage them to continue to seek out other research opportunities at the university level after high school graduation. We hope this work culminates with a conference or journal paper.”

The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program is a program of the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education in the U.S. and the Arthur C. Clarke Institute for Space Education Internationally. It is enabled through a strategic partnership with DreamUp PBC and NanoRacks, LLC, working with NASA under a Space Act Agreement as part of the utilization of the International Space Station as a National Laboratory.