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The Next Magical Space Material Might Be … Wood

Back in 2022 three different wood samples were sent to the International Space Station (ISS) as part of the Japanese Experimental Kibo Module. After ten months of exposure to space, the researchers reported that “wood’s ability to withstand simulated low earth orbit – or LEO – conditions astounded us.” Based on this early success, the Japanese space agency (JAXA) is teaming up with NASA to design and launch a wooden satellite into space in 2024.

Most of the stories about this effort focus on the unexpected potential of wood to stand up to the extreme temperatures of space without warming, cracking or any surface damage, and usually mention the upside of how wood would never burn in space due to the lack of oxygen but would easily burn up in the atmosphere upon reentry making disposal of a satellite after use safer. What immediately struck me about this, though, was the amazing emotional potential of this discovery.

If we can make space structures out of wood, we can make them feel much more welcoming and hospitable to humans. Many studies have cited the vast emotional benefits of wood. It is warm, comforting and has been associated with a greater sense of well being. When humans do eventually spend more time in space, knowing that perhaps we could surround them with wood instead of cold inhuman metal seems like a hopeful thing. We’re not talking about log cabins on the moon, but some wood paneling on the ISS could probably make space more livable for astronauts tasked with testing human capacity to live above the Earth.

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