On July 20, Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, flew into space along with three other companions in one of Blue Origin’s human-rated capsules. Just nine days prior, Richard Branson boarded the Virgin Galactic Unity 22 Spaceflight, which blasted off into suborbital space for a few minutes. Both companies plan on selling commercial tickets to their spacecrafts soon. SpaceX, owned by Elon Musk, plans to launch its first civilian mission in September 2021. While much of the world watched in awe as these billionaires soared into space, scientists worry that the rise and future of space tourism business could harm the Earth’s atmosphere and exacerbate the effects of climate change.
What are the Environmental Consequences of Space Tourism Business and Space Pollution?
Space exploration pollution has been gaining more attention in recent years and should not be ignored. The spacecraft operated by Branson’s Virgin Galactic is powered by a hybrid engine. These engines burn rubber and other fuels, and they generate a lot of soot. A space tourism flight, which lasts about an hour-and-a-half, generates as much pollution as a 10-hour trans-Atlantic flight. This raises concern considering Virgin Galactic’s ambitions to fly tourists several times a day.
Small particles such as soot and aluminium oxides, can have a severe impact on the atmosphere. A 2010 research paper modelled the effects of soot injected into the atmosphere from a thousand private suborbital flights a year and found that it would increase the temperature over the poles by 1 degree Celsius and reduce polar sea ice levels by 5%.
SpaceX plans on launching 395 flights in space annually. However, a single flight reportedly can generate a carbon footprint equivalent of 278 people combined. The fuel for its Falcon 9 engine consists of kerosene and liquid oxygen, which creates a lot of carbon dioxide when burnt. Holding 440 tonnes of fuel, SpaceX would release 4,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere per year if its plans of launching every two weeks are achieved.
Bezos’ New Shepard, on the other hand, has been hailed as one of the cleanest in the industry. Combining liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen to generate thrust, the main emissions would consist of mainly water, some minor combustion products, and only a little bit of carbon dioxide. But that does not mean these space flights are totally clean, and the further down the supply chain you look, the more concerns pop up. Large amounts of electricity is required to make liquid hydrogen and oxygen for the propellant, while water from the rocket exhausts can increase the number of clouds in the atmosphere, thereby, impacting the upper atmospheric layers. Since there have been too few rocket launches, they were not regarded as a concern in climate modelling.
Too little is known about the impact of emitting pollutants in spaces where you would not normally emit. Though it is predicted that space tourism business will expand and increase exponentially in the coming years, with the amount of fuel burned by the space industry being less than 1%, it is unknown at which point rocket launches will start to have a considerable effect on the environment.
While these billionaires pour billions of dollars to take part in this ego-fuelled race to space, more than two hundred people have died due to extreme flooding in Germany and Belgium, hundreds have lost their lives due to record breaking temperatures and wildfires in Canada, and many more fatalities due to other catastrophic disasters that have been intensifying around the world due to climate change.
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Better Uses for Money Spent on Space Tourism Business
Bezos thanked his amazon staff who “paid for all of this”, which was understandably met by criticisms as Amazon workers are notoriously underpaid and forced to work in exploitative work environments such as resorting to using bottles instead of having the time to take even bathroom breaks. For roughly four minutes of weightlessness in space, Bezos had spent approximately US$5.5 billion. By redirecting these expenses, these are seven problems that could have been solved with Bezos’ space flight money:
- Plant up to 5 billion trees, which only cost around $1 to $3 to plant.
- 37.5 million people could have been saved from starvation, and if each billionaire flying into space, Bezos, Musk, and Branson, committed $6 billion, 41 million people could have been prevented from starving this year.
- Fully funded COVAX, securing vaccines for 2 billion people in low-income countries. Bezos could have funded their initiative, which needs approximately $2.6 billion, two times over in the time of a deadly pandemic instead of going to space.
- Working with the United Nations, he could fund humanitarian efforts in Nigeria ($1 billion), the Democratic Republic of Congo ($2 billion), Afghanistan ($1.2 billion), Venezuela ($0.7 billion), Yemen and the horn of Africa ($0.6 billion).
- Fully funded the International Fund for Agricultural Development which is $350 million short of its fundraising goal.
- Fully funded Education Cannot Wait, providing education to children displaced by crises, nearly three times over.
- Helped countries invest in renewable energy, restore ecosystems, and make buildings more energy efficient.
Featured image by: Piqsels