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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

10 Answers 10

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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
  • $\begingroup$ is there a JPL historian in the house? Was the famous SPICE package of programs, utilities and data kernels named after “Melange” found on the planet Arakis? I may have called you a "SciFi geek" there indirectly, but I've included a supporting source :-) $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Jan 26 at 1:59
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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." $\endgroup$ Sep 12 '19 at 19:44
  • $\begingroup$ I have a recollection of discussing this in the '90s with one of the elder folks who'd been at a research establishment since the 50's and they were telling me about an application where I think oak was used as the base (not the external layer!) of a heatshield because it had low thermal conductivity and was still reasonably structurally stable, high strength and stiffness. If it were man made it would be referred to as an advanced fibre composite (as long as it doesn't get wet!) $\endgroup$
    – Puffin
    Nov 30 '20 at 18:24
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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 $\endgroup$ 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 $\endgroup$ 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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WISA Woodsat is made of regular plywood; dried in a thermal chamber but otherwise the same as you'd buy in a hardware store:

WISA Woodsat is a 10x10x10 cm ‘CubeSat’ – a type of nanosatellite built up from standardised boxes – but with surface panels made from plywood. Woodsat’s only non-wooden external parts are corner aluminium rails used for its deployment into space plus a metal selfie stick. [...]

“The base material for plywood is birch, and we’re using basically just the same as you’d find in a hardware store or to make furniture,” explains Woodsat chief engineer and Arctic Astronatics co-founder Samuli Nyman.

“The main difference is that ordinary plywood is too humid for space uses, so we place our wood in a thermal vacuum chamber to dry it out. Then we also perform atomic layer deposition, adding a very thin aluminium oxide layer – typically used to encapsulate electronics. This should minimise any unwanted vapours from the wood, known as ‘outgassing’ in the space field, while also protecting against the erosive effects of atomic oxygen. We’ll also be testing other varnishes and lacquers on some sections of the wood.”

From this press release


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  • $\begingroup$ ALD on plywood! $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Jun 11 at 13:04
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    $\begingroup$ I hope you don't mind, I've added two of their videos. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Jun 11 at 13:10
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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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The FSW did have an oaken heatshield. I saw one on display at the bicentennial airshow (Richmond, Sydney, 1988). This craft was launched on 1987 August 5, and was previously known in the west as China 20, then variously called FSW 0-9 or FSW 0-10, depending on whose chronology you refer to. Cospar 1987 067A, NORAD 18306. The oak was charred, and some broke off when display attendants moved the spacecraft. They simply vacuumed most of it up so that the charcoal didn't mess the carpet! I was able to photograph both the exterior and interior (equipment had been removed).

As for structural elements, at the 1972 Farnborough airshow there was the backup Prospero spacecraft (1971 093A). The solar panels were hinged to provide access to the interior electronics and the wooden frame. I asked the engineer about this, asserting that this was a low fidelity mockup. No, he assured me, it was the real backup, and yes Prospero did have a wooden frame! I believed him, but even today I have the niggling suspicion that maybe I was having my leg pulled!! Prospero was built at the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough, and this engineer was one of those that built it. I understand that this flight spare has been donated to the Science Museum in London. Perhaps some museum visitor / staff could ask the curators abouth this?

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The Apollo boost protective cover -- which covered the command module during launch, protected it from the type of launch damage that doomed the Shuttle Columbia, and which was ejected with the escape tower soon after launch -- was made of cork.

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