The billionaire space race has recently made headlines across the globe as this new shift toward space tourism and exploration is becoming a reality. Launching on July 11, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic VSS Unity spacecraft made it 49 miles (80km) just past the edge of space. Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin spacecraft launched on July 20th (on the anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing) and made it to 74 miles (120km) into space.
Some onlookers see this as a large accomplishment for humankind, as the normalization of space travel can have unlimited potential for society’s understanding of the earth, space, and other planets. That said, not all celebrated this mission, as the environmental impacts have raised concerns and led many to question the ethics of the billionaire space race.
The Environmental Aspect
Author of the book Sustainable Space Tourism, Annette Toivonen, states that "We are living in the era of climate change, and starting an activity that increases emissions as part of a tourism activity is not good timing."
The environmental impact of space travel is not as cut and dry as one might think - as is with many topics in this field. Depending on the fuel used, distance traveled, passengers on board, and many other factors, the environmental impact can vary. That said, when taken into consideration the average of all potential factors, scientists can come to a rather accurate conclusion as to the environmental damage that can occur.
Branson’s Virgin Galactic has announced its plan to eventually run roughly 400 spaceflights per year utilizing a mix of solid carbon-based fuel, hydroxyl-terminated polybutadiene (HTBP), and nitrous oxide. Considering each flight would carry up to 6 people, the overall environmental impact resulting from this ambitious announcement is concerning.
Roland Lehoucq, a French astrophysicist, states that one of these space flights alone will be equivalent to more than twice the annual individual carbon footprint recommended in the Paris Agreement.
Bezos acknowledges the environmental impact and even claims that his Blue Origin is an eco-friendlier option than his counterpart, Virgin Galactic, due to his fuel mixture of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellants. This is backed up by a study conducted by an Aerospace scientist, Marin Ross, who concludes that the rocket does have a smaller environmental footprint. The results showed that Blue Origin had 750x less impact on climate change and caused 100x less ozone depletion.
That being said, this was based on broad calculations and is a study that is not yet peer-reviewed. This means that though these numbers could, in theory, be accurate, they are to be taken with a grain of salt. Especially when considering that Bezos’ rocket is considered to be the eco-friendlier option, that doesn’t mean that it is eco-friendly at all, or that it is absolved from causing substantial environmental damage.
Elon Musk has also set his sights on space travel with SpaceX, expected to launch this September. Utilizing its Falcon 9 rocket carrying roughly four passengers, calculations found that this one trip alone will be equivalent in carbon emissions to that of 395 transatlantic flights.
Thus, space travel can lead to direct cooling of the atmosphere due to the potential for clouds to form as a direct result of water vapor emissions, causing the sun to reflect into space rather than reaching the earth. This outcome can further accelerate the depletion of the ozone layer, resulting in a potentially disastrous nuclear winter.
In addition, when factoring in indirect proponents, such as manufacturing waste, transportation to get to the launchpad, etc., the impact of space tourism concludes to have a rather dire potential outcome on the planet.
A Future in Space
At this stage, it is hard to determine for sure if space tourism will have a net negative or net benefit on the planet due to the unforeseeable future impacts that might occur. What scientists do currently know points to negative environmental damage due to air pollutants, waste, and greenhouse gas emissions. However, with due time and the eventual growth of this industry, there is room for change and more sustainable alternatives to be implemented.
It also must be noted the target demographic for space tourism – the ultra-wealthy. At a time where climate change awareness is ever-expanding, more of the general public is gaining knowledge of the impact that the ultra-wealthy has on the environment. Considering the upper-class already accounts for a large amount of environmental impact, adding another opportunity to further those numbers by substantial amounts does not sit well with many individuals.
With all of that in consideration, suborbital space tourism is still considered to have far less of an impact than rockets that achieve orbit. And though it doesn’t seem to have the potential for discovery as space exploration in general, the possibilities with this newfound tourism are currently untapped and therefore seemingly limitless.
Some might argue that a better alternative is to continue researching a cleaner way of space travel whilst only reserving the act for astronauts who can potentially utilize the knowledge discovered in space for the advancement of humankind. Would that excuse the emissions and environmental damage that this type of transportation causes? Well, that is up to each individual to determine for themselves. In the meantime, the growth of this sector will flourish, as the idea of visiting space is sure to attract individuals from all across the globe who want to experience a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.