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Not a trick question, but a real puzzler - which spacecraft or spacecrafts incorporated real wood structural elements?

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    $\begingroup$ I think wood would be an unlikely choice for a spacecraft structural element. See popsci.com/article/technology/… $\endgroup$ – Anthony X Oct 30 '16 at 22:49
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    $\begingroup$ @AnthonyX while the use is brief (milliseconds), during the contact and deceleration phase the absorber is a mechanical device solidly in contact with the payload and the surface. It is designed to slowly fail in a predictable way, dissipate energy, and to control the distance between the payload and the surface as a function of time for smooth, controlled deceleration. A structural engineer would use structural engineering math and structural engineering software to design and simulate it. Would you prefer that a propulsion engineer or an orbital mechanic do the job? :) $\endgroup$ – uhoh Oct 31 '16 at 2:54
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    $\begingroup$ Nowadays the crushable landing structures are usually made of aluminium honeycomb rather than balsa wood. This is also used for crash protection in terrestrial vehicles - at one stage I had a brochure from a manufacturer being considered for Schiaparelli, which mainly had pictures of high speed trains on it. $\endgroup$ – djr Oct 31 '16 at 13:15
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    $\begingroup$ Is this on topic as an answerable question? As interesting as it is, it seems like a list question. $\endgroup$ – corsiKa Nov 1 '16 at 6:15
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    $\begingroup$ Do structural elements of spacecraft's standard equipment count? 'cause TP-82 had wooden stock and grip. $\endgroup$ – SF. Feb 14 '17 at 14:12
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Rangers 3, 4, and 5 each had a seismometer encased in balsa wood to limit the impact loads.

balsa wood sphere diagram of Ranger Block II

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    $\begingroup$ Is that Pasadena? Somewhere in top-secret New Mexico? The background looks vaguely like billeting. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Oct 31 '16 at 6:11
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    $\begingroup$ It's at JPL, so yes, Pasadena. That street looks pretty much the same today. We still use buildings built when JPL was an Army facility. $\endgroup$ – Mark Adler Oct 31 '16 at 13:20
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    $\begingroup$ Not just wood but balsa! Because, like the old saying goes: "balsa flies better" $\endgroup$ – slebetman Nov 1 '16 at 7:39
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    $\begingroup$ @slebetman ah! i.stack.imgur.com/y1dZp.png $\endgroup$ – uhoh Jan 17 '17 at 0:50
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Many Mars landers have used heatshields made of cork powder in phenolic resin, including Viking and Schiaparelli. (ESA uses a material called Norcoat Liège, "liège" being French for cork.)

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  • $\begingroup$ Yep, good one! But in that case we can't really call it wood anymore, I'm looking for an application where the wood's natural structural properties are used mechanically. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Oct 30 '16 at 18:51
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    $\begingroup$ Right, like cabinetmakers disparage particleboard as "frozen sawdust." $\endgroup$ – Camille Goudeseune Sep 12 at 19:44
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I think that Soyuz launcher uses wooden parts in engine ignition process (proof link in Russian: https://geektimes.ru/post/273782/)

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    $\begingroup$ Nice! It is used for structure - it holds something in place. I can't tell from google translate - is it just first stage (at launch) or were they used on upper stages? Wood in space? $\endgroup$ – uhoh Oct 31 '16 at 2:09
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    $\begingroup$ No, it is used for ignition process and does not fly to space $\endgroup$ – Pavel Bernshtam Oct 31 '16 at 6:02
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    $\begingroup$ OK only the first stage ignition, where it is easy to access, and not in upper stage engine ignition, that makes sense. Thanks! $\endgroup$ – uhoh Oct 31 '16 at 6:08
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A wooden Space Shuttle?

Before the Space Shuttle ever flew, a lot of testing had to be done. Among the test items were the OV-101 (Enterprise), STA-099 (later OV-099, Challenger) and the Pathfinder (later OV-098, no STA designation known). The latter was partly built of wood.

OV-101 Enterprise

OV-101 Enterprise

The Enterprise was built without engines or functional heat shield. Also a lot of other systems were missing. It was intended as a flight test article first, but was planned to be upgraded to full orbiter status after conclusion of testing, becoming the second orbiter after OV-102 Columbia. Design changes during the construction of Columbia forced NASA to reconsider this. After the Challenger disaster, refitting Enterprise was again brought up but ultimately decided against.

STA-099 Challenger

STA-099 Challenger

Like the Enterprise, Challenger was first built for testing. It was a full airframe with a mockup crew module and partial heat shielding. It was put to the test for 11 months. After that it was fitted with a functional crew module, parts were reworked and was launched on orbital missions as OV-099.

OV-098 Pathfinder

OV-098 Pathfinder

Space Shuttle Pathfinder (retroactively/honorarily assigned number OV-098) was another full sized orbiter test article, but built out of steel and wood. It was mainly used for testing all shuttle ground facilities: cranes, roadways and other heavy equipment. It completed 6 missions, but zero of those actually went into space. It was later refurbished into a fully equipped model using a test tank (MPTA-ET) and two prototype Advanced Solid Rocket Booster casings.

Refurbished Pathfinder

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    $\begingroup$ Wow! Thank you for pulling all this information together - including the historical photos. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Nov 15 '16 at 10:39
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    $\begingroup$ Wooden test articles are common. I've seen wooden mockups of Buran, for example. They are used for check fits and other tests where structural strength is not important. $\endgroup$ – Hobbes Nov 15 '16 at 19:03
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    $\begingroup$ @Hobbes That's right, but most don't get a designation commonly used for spacecraft. The Pathfinder is a bit of an edge case, but I think items like this dserve more recognition. $\endgroup$ – Aaganrmu Nov 15 '16 at 19:40
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    $\begingroup$ I always felt that the Star Trek fans who campaigned to place the name Enterprise on the first shuttle to be rolled out had messed up. They should have campaigned to place the name Enterprise on the first one actually scheduled to carry humans into space. According to show canon, the USS Enterprise was a Constitution class vessel, thus not the class leader, so more fitting that Enterprise actually not be the first shuttle built, rolled out, or even to carry a crew (flight test article). $\endgroup$ – Anthony X Jan 15 '17 at 23:18
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In the mid 1970's China had a series of reconnaissance satellites called Fanhui Shi Weixing (FSW). These were designed pretty early on. They were recoverable and mostly used for mapping and internal geography of China. They were recoverable because at first they had film cameras like early American spy satellites. These had a heat shield make of white oak. It apparently worked well since there were quite a few, (20 something?) missions. Later on they tried to evolve them into manned spacecraft. In the west it was believed they had a failure causing the loss of the astronaut, so that program was discontinued. I believe FSW (with improvements) were used again for reconnaissance. Later they got people up in the Shenzhou program.

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  • $\begingroup$ Wow!!! Great answer, thank you for this contribution! It's not a structural material per se, but it's a notable use of wood nonetheless. I've found multiple references to this right off, but can you add a link to your answer just for future readers? Thanks!! $\endgroup$ – uhoh Jan 16 '17 at 2:59
  • $\begingroup$ I've asked a follow-up question. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Jan 16 '17 at 3:37
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    $\begingroup$ Here is one resource astronautix.com/f/fsw.html $\endgroup$ – Johnny Robinson Jan 17 '17 at 0:16
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The Apollo SLA had thin cork panels for insulating the LM.

The roof of the LM looks to me to be perforated chipboard, like the back of an old tv, but i've no references to back that up :)

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When a flown Dragon was displayed at JSC, I saw some framing in it made of what I thought was particle board. I couldn't believe it, and have never been able to confirm it.

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Balsa wood was discussed for the thermal insulation of cryonic LH2 tanks of the Saturn rocket. But there was not enough balsa wood available, therefore glas fiber reinforced polyurethane foam was used.

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  • $\begingroup$ I never would have guessed that! I had heard that back in the "old days" there were ball bearing made of "ironwood" (Lignum Vitae) and my (very) old copy of the Machinery's Handbook has a lot of properties of wood along with metals and alloys. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Nov 2 '16 at 9:57
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    $\begingroup$ @uhoh: Not only bearings but also gears were made from the self lubricating Lignum Vitae. Even very precise pendulum clocks by the famous John Harrison. But are you sure about "ball bearings"? $\endgroup$ – Uwe Nov 2 '16 at 14:56
  • $\begingroup$ I am sure that I heard it, thought it was a very long time ago so the source is no longer around to "double check". I always thought it seemed strange since wood is definitely not isotropic. It could have been cylindrical bearings, or something that was a bad idea and didn't work! $\endgroup$ – uhoh Nov 2 '16 at 15:10
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    $\begingroup$ Well indeed, cylinderical bearings in Nuclear Submarines! See here too! OK so it is true! After all these years I can finally be sure, thanks google! $\endgroup$ – uhoh Nov 2 '16 at 15:40

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