Civil engineering graduate student receives two NASA fellowships


Tim Schley

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Peter Collins, a civil engineering doctoral candidate, recently received a three-year NASA Space Technology Graduate Research Opportunity (NSTGRO), formerly known as a NASA Space Technology Research Fellowship, and a one-year Pennsylvania Space Grant Consortium NASA Graduate Fellowship to study how concrete can be developed in space.

“Civil engineering is not a heavily represented field in the realm of space technology, but the future goals for human space exploration are starting to change that narrative, and I am proud to be a part of it,” Collins said.

In 2019, NASA introduced the Artemis program, the organization’s commitment to establishing a sustainable exploration presence on the moon and eventually, Mars. To accomplish this feat, astronauts will need to build resilient structures away from Earth — likely using concrete, the most widely used construction material in the world, according to the American Concrete Institute.

Collins is a member of the Concrete Research Group at Penn State, led by Aleksandra Radlińska, associate professor of civil engineering. The group’s ongoing project, Microgravity Investigation of Cement Solidification (MICS), investigates how concrete, typically made with a mixture of small rocks, sand, water and Portland cement, solidifies under different gravitational forces.

“I cannot thank Dr. Radlińska enough for her continued support and the opportunity to work on such remarkable research,” Collins said.

Through its partnership with NASA, the MICS team sent a variety of cement mixtures to the International Space Station (ISS) to be mixed and solidified. The samples were returned and compared with identical mixtures developed on Earth and found that cement’s solidification reaction and resultant microstructure is dependent on the level of gravity.

Collins plans to continue this research through his fellowships by sending additional samples to the ISS. These samples will be used to develop a new concrete mixture that uses more materials found on the moon’s surface while also maintaining concrete’s current strength and durability levels.

“Thus far, our work has focused on mostly Earth-based cementitious systems,” Collins said. “The lunar regolith composition is advantageous to create an alkali-activated concrete material that does not contain a traditional Portland cement as the binding component.”

As part of the NSTGRO program, Collins has been matched with Richard Grugel, a materials scientist with NASA and investigator on the MICS project, via the program’s “visiting technologist experience.” Together, they will have the opportunity to perform their research at a NASA center each year and collaborate with other relevant engineers and scientists.

“This will allow me to gain a deeper understanding of what NASA is trying to accomplish and is the best way for me to make sure the project reaches its fullest potential,” Collins said.

The research may also pay dividends on Earth. Collins said even though concrete is widely used in today’s society, questions remain regarding its solidification reaction. Studying how concrete hardens in unique gravitational environments and experimenting with new mixtures could lead to enhancements in its strength and durability for terrestrial applications.

“A small improvement in the material could result in a large impact on Earth,” Collins said.

Collins received a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Utah State University in 2018 and a master’s degree in civil engineering from Penn State in 2019. He was recently named a Mark E. and Claire L. Alpert Graduate Fellow for 2020 and awarded the American Society of Civil Engineers Central PA Section 2019 Student Award.


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Megan Lakatos

a man stands in a concrete laboratory

Peter Collins, doctoral student in the Concrete Research Group at Penn State, received two NASA fellowships to develop new concrete mixtures using materials found on the moon. IMAGE: PENN STATE