Alongside flying cars, widespread space travel has always felt like a distant dream for the future. However, with new technological and scientific innovations – as well as billionaires Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson – the possibilities of doing a round trip to the Moon are looking more likely than ever. As commercial space tourism evolves and people rush to spend $250,000 to reserve future seats on the Virgin Galactic, there is a big question facing future travellers and everyone else on the planet: just how bad will it be for the Earth’s environment?
Obviously, space exploration needs a lot of fuel to propel rockets through the Earth’s atmosphere. Therefore flying commercial rockets to space will inevitably incur an environmental cost and, because there are far fewer people who will be able to go on these flights, emissions per passenger will be higher. As it stands, rockets emit about 100 times more CO₂ per passenger than commercial flights and, during the launch, they can emit between four and 10 times more nitrogen oxides than the largest thermal power plant in the UK.
The other issue is that emissions from rockets are injected straight into the upper atmosphere, meaning they stay there for two to three years. Even water in the upper atmosphere, where clouds are formed, can have warming impacts on the planet.
“Figuring out the overall effect of rocket launches on the atmosphere will require detailed modelling, in order to account for these complex processes and the persistence of these pollutants in the upper atmosphere,” writes Eloise Marais, Associate Professor in Physical Geography at UCL. This is because effects on climate will differ depending on various factors, such as the type of fuel used to power rockets, the energy required to manufacture that fuel and where the rockets are actually headed. She also explains that the more popular space travel gets, the more pollution will be released into the Earth’s atmosphere.
Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson’s space venture, aims to launch 400 of these flights annually, while Bezos’ Blue Origin and Musks’ SpaceX are yet to announce their future plans. According to Marais, launches wouldn’t need to increase by much from the current 100 or so performed each year to induce harmful effects that are competitive with other sources of pollution, like ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and CO₂ from aircrafts. And with no international regulations around space travel or the kinds of fuels that should be used for it, there is even more cause for climate concern.
Emissions aside, it’s also concerning that the space-race billionaires, who have made their money from owning multinational corporations, are not doing more to tackle their companies’ environmental footprints. Amazon alone reported that its activities emitted the equivalent of 60.64 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2020, up by 15 per cent from 2019. To put this in perspective, that’s twice the amount of carbon dioxide produced by all of Norway.
As climate change continues to harm the most marginalised people across the planet, it feels like billionaire CEOs have their priorities off by investing so much time and money into space travel. Just days ago, an angry secretary general of the UN, António Guterres, made an impassioned speech about space travel to other world leaders. “This is a moral indictment of the state of our world. It is an obscenity,” he said as he talked about vast disparities in wealth that saw “billionaires joyride into space while millions go hungry.”
It’s hard not to agree with him, especially during a global pandemic in which inequalities continue to widen. And even more so because we know that humans don’t have that much time left to mitigate the effects of climate change to come.
Jeff Bezos has argued that he could try to move “all polluting industry” to space to keep the Earth clean, as though transporting heavy industry into space and products back to the planet wouldn’t require massive use of energy and resources. Doesn’t really sound like a viable solution, does it?
It seems the only thing space tourism has promised so far is giving a joyride to the one per cent.