Updated: Apr 17
As the state of the environment significantly worsens, some of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful men have begun taking revolutionary steps towards colonising space. I suppose there is a Planet B, after all. In July 2021, both “Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Virgin boss Richard Branson flew to space in crafts made by their own companies” (Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, respectively) and due to follow their lead in September 2021 is Elon Musk’s SpaceX which “plans to launch an all-civilian crew into orbit”.ᶦᶦ Branson’s Virgin Galactic is set to begin “regular commercial services in 2022, and already has 600 reservations at around $250,000 a ticket”.ᶦᶦᶦ The commercial space tourism industry is growing fast, leading to public questioning around how much carbon and money are going into launching these expeditions and what the environmental impact will be.
Ian Whittaker, a space physics lecturer from Nottingham-Trent University, notes that “experiencing a few minutes of weightlessness on Virgin Galactic’s spaceplane will rack up a carbon footprint comparable with flying business class across the Atlantic, and one orbital launch of SpaceX’s upcoming fully reusable Starship will emit as much carbon dioxide as flying a plane continuously for about three years”.ᶦᵛ Whereas, Bezos’ Blue Origin has reported its “New Shepard rocket uses carbon-free fuels like hydrogen and oxygen”.ᵛ Despite these jarring calculations, there are “vastly more commercial plane flights than space launches—39 million versus 114 in 2018” and rockets collectively “burn about 0.1% as much fuel as planes do”, making the emissions a non-issue unless the industry expands significantly. The environmental impact is therefore miniscule in comparison to other emitters but holds the potential to grow to devastating proportions.
Despite the use of “liquid fuels” in SpaceX and Blue origin’s rockets, they both produce by-products such as water vapor and nitrogen oxides “that can deplete ozone during the years they circulate in the upper atmosphere”.ᵛᶦ The concern thus shouldn’t stem from this experimental stage of expeditions, but perhaps from Virgin Galactic’s plans to “eventually operate 400 flights per year” and SpaceX’s plans to use the Starship to shuttle “passengers between major cities in under an hour”.ᵛᶦᶦ As it stands, the damage is not yet done.
The issue then may rest with these three high-powered billionaires’ financial priorities and their public reception. The backlash leading up to Bezos’ space flight resulted in a public petition demanding Bezos not be readmitted to Earth, gathering nearly 200,000 signatures and the simultaneous public outcry for billionaires to “invest their infinite funds into programmes that save our planet as opposed to fleeing it”.ᵛᶦᶦᶦ To put it into perspective, “the 5.5 billion dollars used for Bezos’s launch, would have been able to finance 2 billion people in low income countries being vaccinated, the funds to end hunger for 37.5 million people or to plant five billion trees”.ᶦˣ
The public bitterness is befitting of the circumstances, as we all watch the three men most capable of addressing public issues like hunger, housing, clean water, and disaster relief leave us behind and look instead to space for a better future. At a quarter of a million dollars per ticket, it is clear those responsible for the worst of the damage to the environment are the only ones among us that can afford the ticket out.
ᶦ Moscrop, D, ‘The billionaire space race is an exploitative, wasteful farce’, The Canadian Dimension (Winnipeg, 23 July 2021) <https://canadiandimension.com/articles/view/the-billionaire-space-race-is-an-exploitative-wasteful-farce> accessed 2 September 2021.
ᶦᶦ Timperley, J, ‘Billionaire space race: What does it mean for climate change and the environment?’ Science Focus (London, 12 August 2021) <https://www.sciencefocus.com/news/billionaire-space-race-what-does-it-mean-for-climate-change-and-the-environment/> accessed 1 September 2021.
ᶦᵛ Wood, C, ‘How Blue Origin, SpaceX, Virgin Galactic space race could impact the atmosphere’ CNBC News (New York, 27 August 2021) <https://www.cnbc.com/2021/08/27/how-blue-origin-spacex-virgin-galactic-space-race-could-impact-the-atmosphere.html> accessed September 1 2021.
ᵛᶦᶦᶦ Downes, H, ‘The billionaire space race: one step for technology; a giant leap for air pollution’ Palatinate (Durham, 1 September 2021) <https://www.palatinate.org.uk/the-billionaire-space-race-one-step-for-technology-a-giant-leap-for-air-pollution/> accessed 31 August 2021.