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So, Im writing a sci-fi universe, and a species in said universe is a low-population fox-like humanoid race who live on a forest-covered world. With a society that's like a summer camp and a tech level of mid-1950s Earth, minus some photovoltaic panels and lithium-based batteries; they're very rural and communal, this species also has a very basic space program, mostly to explore their solar system and scavenge for alien tech left over by a long-dead advanced civilization. This species uses wood to compensate for a lack of lightweight metals (I.E. Aluminum and titanium) for surface structures and aircraft.

But is wood a viable building material for spacecraft?

  • the species has no aluminum processing, they just never figured it out
  • titanium is also not used, as deposits of it are too rare on-surface and off-world infrastructure is not developed enough for full-scale extraction
  • this civilization hand-makes most things based on its needs, of the 6 million individuals that exist, around 200,000 are dedicated to their small space program
  • they do refine metals like steel, lead, copper, and gold, which are used in propulsion systems, fuel tanks, shielding, electronics, and parts of the craft that need to be airtight, wood is merely a structural component or used to construct cargo containers, and metal refinement is on a small scale
  • they have all the infrastructure or alternates to needed infrastructure for a small space program
  • The wood selected for space flight is hardwood similar to hard maple and can be reinforced by resins/tars or steel rods
  • everything they make is made by the hands of specialists (as in not in big factories, in small workshops or chemistry labs) based on if someone needs the thing, the exceptions to this rule is food, water, and electricity. It's inefficient but they don't need heavy industry for their mostly simple lives.
  • they all live in one city, not a concrete jungle like New York, but a large rustic settlement located near one of the planet's oceans, it's also where most production is
  • we're hand-waving all logistic issues of a pre-industrial production system making post-industrial tech
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Probably not. At least, not just ordinary wood.

A significant part of the strength of wood is the water content. If you expose it to vacuum it will likely start turning to powder.

You might get somewhere using composites. You start with wood. Then you do some things that include grinding it. There is a huge amount of other things you do to it. You add a bonding agent. And then you cure it so it becomes very hard.

The other things you do to it will include various chemical treatments to get the fiber you want and leave out the portions you don't want. That's a complicated process. It will depend on the exact nature of the wood, the nature of the bonding agent, the nature of the curing process, and the kind of material you want to finish with.

At an extreme basic level, plywood is made this way. Another whole level is composites used to make certain types of helicopter prop blades. Though I'm not sure they start with wood.

The curing process is important. Some are cured through a two-component process in the manner of setting epoxy. Some types can be cured with heat. Others are cured with microwaves. Still others are cured with gamma rays from fixed-in-place radiation sources obtained from nuclear reactors. The goal is to set the bonding agent without damaging the fibers.

Even with a composite, it may be necessary to apply a coating to protect it from the effects of vacuum. Or possibly even modify the bonding agent or the curing process.

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    $\begingroup$ The key word for this behavior is "outgassing". Not just wood but plastics and many composites can have issues when they enter vacuum and parts of their internal structure decide that they don't want to be internal any more. $\endgroup$
    – Cadence
    Commented Feb 21, 2023 at 20:46
  • $\begingroup$ @cadence not to mention what happens to your optics and radiator panels after a lot of outgassing... A satellite can go from clear-eyed and cool to blind and overheating. Outgassing has real impacts! $\endgroup$
    – PipperChip
    Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 21:28
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah I bet you can get a lot of mileage out of a wooden spaceship, if made with properly treated wood (and ideally not used to get into or out of atmospheres, I'd bet). There are loads of treatments and I'm sure some of them would work out well enough in space. Maybe even make the bulk of it out of treated wood, and then have a thin plating of some type... $\endgroup$
    – JamieB
    Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 22:57
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If they have good adhesives (akin to epoxy resin or urea-formaldehyde glue), absolutely, yes. Thin, narrow strips can be wrapped onto a form and saturated with the glue to form a COPV -- composite overwrap pressure vessel. The glue will protect the wood from vacuum evaporation (at least for a good while), and the overall strength to weight ratio of woods like spruce is slightly better than that of aluminum. Depending what their rocket fuels are, these could even act as propellant tanks (no nitric acid or cryogenics, please).

Very light wood (similar to balsa) also makes good insulation; the heat shields of the Mercury spacecraft was mostly balsa with some fiberglass to keep it from fragmenting during reentry (it acted as both insulation and ablator).

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    $\begingroup$ It isn't just Mercury: cork is such a good/cheap insulator that even modern missiles and spacecraft use it as part of their thermal protection systems! $\endgroup$
    – PipperChip
    Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 18:21
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Obligatory 'I am not a Rocket Scientist'

First answer:

No. Hard No.

Let's stack everything in your favour - you have an un-pressurized space ship, that never has to go into an atmosphere.

Your first issue is the Temperature in space is really cold - Wood doesn't like being that cold, even if you could get it to near 0% moisture content so that water freezing wasn't an issue - the temperature would cause havoc.

Then you have Radiation - Without shielding, the ionizing radiation would weaken the wood over time. If you are bothering with shielding - then there's no need for the Wood.

Next up is the precision required for a functioning Space Vehicle - Wood is a living material - it is not suited for precision engineering where the tolerances needed are measure in the thousandth of an inch or smaller - these may seem small, but when you multiply any deviation by the vast distances in space, you start to get issues.

Sure, you can correct and trim a spacecraft - but that uses up precious fuel and adds additional stress to the frame with all the constant adjustments which leads to:

The stresses on the space frame when making adjustments (firing engines) would likely be too great for a Wooden structure to withstand and if you limited the engines to such a stress that it wasn't an issue, the acceleration times needed to get anywhere in space would be so large that you would die of old age.

That all said...

A thought did occur to me:

The de Havilland Mosquito

This was an excellent Fighter/Bomber of the Royal Airforce in WW2 - and was primarily constructed from Wood. Now, granted - Space Flight and terrestrial flights are not the same - but with enough handhavium, you could possibly come up with a similar theory to the Mosquito - there was also the Vickers Wellington Bomber that used a Geodesic pattern in WW2 also.

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  • $\begingroup$ The Mosquito (and a number of other wood-and-canvas planes of WW2) flew in an entirely different regime from aluminum-bodied planes, significantly lower and slower. (Much of its success came from the fact that would-be interceptors had trouble getting as low and slow as it!) So it's not as simple as "if you can build it out of metal, you can build it out of wood". $\endgroup$
    – Cadence
    Commented Feb 21, 2023 at 21:17
  • $\begingroup$ @Cadence - for sure - my point was more 'here are some successful 'modern' wooden airframes that you could reference' add in a large dose of Artistic license and some Handwavium wood - you might be able to just scrape together a space-based wooden vessel - but I still think my first answer stands.... It's just I like the Mosquito and felt I was doing her dirty. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 21, 2023 at 21:21
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    $\begingroup$ @cadence: You appear to be confused about the Mosquito. It flew sufficiently high and fast that it was difficult for interceptors to reach. Are you thinking of the Swordfish? $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 16:16
  • $\begingroup$ Space is not cold. In fact, the vacuum will insulate it $\endgroup$
    – Mary
    Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 22:57
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Thee was a juvenile science fiction novel in the 1960s I think where low grade spaceships were rather boxy and rectangular and made out of wood. Those spaceships were used in outer space and didn't take off or land on planets. I think they were used in our solar systems asteroid belt.

I don't remember the author or title so I can't recommend where to look up any critical reaction to or discussion of those wooden spaceships.

In Larry Niven's known space series the Thrint or Slavers used giant trees as first stages for getting into orbit. Those stage trees looked sort of like giant asparagus stalks. After the downfall of the Slavers the stage trees survived and reproduced by launching their seed pods into space. Apparently the stage trees produced so much solid rocket fuel inside their wooden outer shells that they could reach orbit in one stage, or even break out of planetary and even stellar orbit to spread their seeds to other stars.

And I think that I remember a story by Fletcher Pratt (1897-1956) where an alien crashed in the protagonist's backyard and built a new spaceship out of junk or maybe grew it as a plant. I don't remember which story or novel it was.

And that is about all I can remember on the subject of wooden space ships i science fiction without getting into rather fantasy children's stories like Rusty's Space Ship (1957).

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