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Wikipedia says this about the Boeing Dreamliner:

The 787 was designed to be the first production airliner with the fuselage assembled with one-piece composite barrel sections instead of the multiple aluminum sheets and some 50,000 fasteners used on existing aircraft.

Weight is a major problem in space/launch activities. In this context, these questions come to mind:

  • Can composites be used by space programs for launch vehicles, the spacecraft itself, or both?
  • What arguments are there against the use of composites in this context?
    • E.g. Flammable, Porous
  • Is there any launch vehicle/spacecraft that presently uses composites extensively?
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From what launcher components are currently using composite materials, this slide from NASA's Advanced Composite Structures and Materials Technologies for Launch Vehicles presentation (PDF) tells the story pretty well on composites on current launch vehicles (presentation is from March 2011):

   enter image description here

Additionally, some suborbital space planes also use composites, like for example the all-carbon-composite body Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo and to a various degree likely all of the Virgin Galactic suborbital fleet, including SpaceShipOne and their motherships that they're launched in-air from, White Knight Two and White Knight, respectively. They're all built by a California based Northrop Grumman corporation aerospace company Scaled Composites.

   enter image description here

If Virgin Galactic's future orbital launch vehicle LauncherOne will use any of its parts made of composites is however unclear from what little of its proposed design is known to me, but it will be also launched in air from its mothership (Scaled Composites WhiteKnightTwo) that is a composite based body.

NASA is also looking into the use of composites for future space exploration missions (not merely launchers and crew modules but also probes, landers, rovers etc.) and has announced composites research partnership with Bell, GE, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Boeing, United Technologies Corporation and Pratt & Whitney in September 2013.

NASA has previously been working on a design for an Orion crew exploration vehicle pressure shell made entirely of composite materials to gain in-house composites experience, testing composite cryogenic fuel tank and can use a lighter composite payload shroud on some of the launch vehicles if needs be, so they clearly have intentions in using composites more in the future.

SpaceX Falcon 9 also uses what looked to me a carbon-fibre reinforced polymer payload fairing to me (judging by images presented in a webcast stream before its latest flight seven), but it is certainly made of composites, as stated on SpaceX page on Falcon 9. Together with NASA, they also built a carbon-composite carrier structure for the first Dragon spacecraft heat shield (Photo Credit: SpaceX/Roger Gilbertson):

   enter image description here

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  • Are composites used (extensively) by launch vehicles or spacecraft?

Yes, almost since NASA's beginning. For example, the Saturn V used composites.

Note that "composite" is a general term, meaning fibers held in a matrix. Carbon fiber is only one kind of fiber, albeit a fashionable one with a high Young's modulus. Fiberglass, basalt, and aramid (Kevlar) are other fibers. Matrices include thermoset plastics like polyester, and many kinds of epoxy. Even plywood is technically a composite: wood fibers bound in a glue matrix. Non-carbon-fiber composites are plenty strong enough for primary structure: Rutan's airplanes, countless sailboats, the plywood De Havilland Mosquito.

  • What arguments are there against the use of composites in this context?

If manufacturing isn't tightly controlled (temperature-pressure schedule during cure of the matrix, for instance), variations will be found in the composite's properties: density, thermal conductivity, stress-strain curves, resistance to crack propagation, resistance to delamination, yada yada. Risk-averse engineers prefer metal: if you've seen one ingot of aluminum, you've seen them all. (Back in the Saturn V days, a business-world saying was that nobody ever got fired for recommending IBM.)

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Some additions to TildalWave's answer:

The ISS solar arrays are supported by telescoping masts that use bent fiberglass rods for the telescoping capability and to provide structural rigidity. (Source: This paper)

For the final Hubble servicing mission, the carriers that mounted the new instruments in Atlantis's payload bay were made entirely of composite materials. (Source: This NASA page)

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I'd like to add ceramic-matrix-composites to the list of possible composite-materials!

There are several programs where these advanced ceramics are tested (e.g. SHEFEX I to III from the German Aerospace Center). Positive properties are e.g. heat-resistance, corrosion behaviour and insulation (electrical and thermal) at a relatively low density...

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  • $\begingroup$ The list goes on. Steel rebar in concrete, straw in clay (Exodus, or Firefly "Jaynestown"),... $\endgroup$ – Camille Goudeseune Apr 24 '14 at 21:03

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