Could a spacecraft use organic materials, like wood or bone or shell or other tissues, as an interface to the vacuum and radiation of space? Would wood outgas and crack up in space? I wonder if life on Earth has evolved materials, without human technology such as metallurgy, that could work for spaceflight. Something which might have evolved somewhere out there.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I added the tag "aliens". I'm surprised it wasn't already established here. $\endgroup$ – LocalFluff Apr 9 '17 at 21:39
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ One way of looking at wood is that it is an advanced fibre composite. Some hardwoods, having good dimensional stability with temperature, have been used as the structure underneath a return capsule heatshield (unmanned). No references I'm afraid for that, something that was passed onto me by word of mouth from an old hand working in the 60's and 70's. $\endgroup$ – Puffin Apr 9 '17 at 23:11
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Related: space.stackexchange.com/questions/18856/… $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble Apr 10 '17 at 0:46
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @LocalFluff I replaced the "aliens" tag with our existing "astrobiology" tag which has "extraterrestrial-life" as a synonym. Perhaps we could discuss adding "aliens" as a synonym as well. $\endgroup$ – called2voyage Apr 10 '17 at 20:56
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Obligatory Deep Space Nine reference: vignette2.wikia.nocookie.net/memoryalpha/images/5/5f/… $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble Jul 2 '17 at 14:34

Yes, and it has been used in the past (See: NASA - balsawood). It was not a significant portion of the spacecraft but it has occurred. You can, in theory, use any material to build a space vehicle, however, mechanical constraints will arise. A mechanical designer would have to evaluate the cost-benefit of utilizing wood and determine the risks of using a non-traditional material.

Space is a brutal environment with extreme temperatures, significant radiation exposure, and vacuum environment. All of these are factors analyzed in FEA simulations by engineers prior to making such a design decision. Since you mentioned 'spacecraft' I'm assuming you're referring to some kind of orbiter, satellite etc. Aside from the space environments, there are significant stress loads (i.e. vibrations, g-forces) that are experienced by the vehicle during launch. Lastly, there may be cases where manufacturing wooden parts prove to be more difficult than more widely used metals such as aluminum.

Like you mentioned, outgassing can be in issue in porous materials because a vacuum environment can cause the expansion of gas pockets. This can lead to material failure where the structural integrity of entire spacecraft is destroyed. As far as evolved materials are concerned, I'd find it difficult for it to naturally occur because the space environment is not immediately present during the evolution process of plants and mammals due to our atmosphere and gravitational pull.

  • $\begingroup$ I am not sure your example is valid "The basic vehicle was 3.1 m high and consisted of a lunar capsule covered with a balsawood impact-limiter, " - It looks like the wood was there to absorb impacts so does not speak to most of the concerns raised by the question. $\endgroup$ – James Jenkins Jul 3 '17 at 15:53

Wood could not be used alone. You need a very good glue for making plywood with crossed fibers and for the assembling of several parts. Wood and glue would outgas any remaining water and would get brittle. A protection against the very intensive UV radiation as well as against micro meteorites would be necessary.

But every kind of wood, glue and varnish used should be space rated. The whole production process from drying of wood to cutting, preheating, pressing, resting should be controlled. Even the humidity of air during production has its influence.

The wooden parts should be tested just like other parts, a vibration test, a sun simulation in a vacuum chamber. You could not rely on experiences made with metal parts. If a different material is used, all tests should be repeated.

Many decades ago, military aircraft were built from wood, but nowadays metals and composite materials are used.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Might be worth mentioning that all these materials tend to be flammable. Not an issue in a vacuum, but a significant hazard in a human life supporting environment. $\endgroup$ – Anthony X Feb 12 '19 at 18:40
  • $\begingroup$ @AnthonyX: I agree, flammability should be taken very serious in a human life supporting environment. $\endgroup$ – Uwe Feb 12 '19 at 21:20

Apparently some people in Japan think so!

From today's BBC's Japan developing wooden satellites to cut space junk:

Sumitomo Forestry said it has started research on tree growth and the use of wood materials in space.

The partnership will begin experimenting with different types of wood in extreme environments on Earth.

and later

"We are very concerned with the fact that all the satellites which re-enter the Earth's atmosphere burn and create tiny alumina particles which will float in the upper atmosphere for many years," Takao Doi, a professor at Kyoto University and Japanese astronaut, told the BBC.

"Eventually it will affect the environment of the Earth."

"The next stage will be developing the engineering model of the satellite, then we will manufacture the flight model," Professor Doi added.

As an astronaut he visited the International Space Station in March 2008.

During this mission, he became the first person to throw a boomerang in space that had been specifically designed for use in microgravity.

See also World's first wooden satellite to be launched by Japan in 2023


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.