Burgeoning Space Tourism Industry Could Become Big Emitter

by Natasha Lasky, ODP Staff Writer

Many of the world’s richest men have been investing heavily into space tourism — SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Space Adventures aim to make space travel accessible to all. But the burgeoning private space industry may have some drastic environmental consequences. While space-bound rockets emit less than the aircraft industry, their emissions have been increasing at nearly 5.6% a year. 

Why This Matters:

When rockets launch into space, they require a vast amount of propellants to make it out, and these fuels excrete carbon dioxide, water, chlorine and other chemicals into the atmosphere. These emissions go right into the upper atmosphere, and could stay there for years. Even water injected into the upper atmosphere – where it can form clouds – can have warming impacts. Most distressingly, the ozone layer can be destroyed by the combination of elements from burning fuels.

For one long-haul plane flight it’s one to three tons of carbon dioxide [per passenger],” Eloise Marais, an associate professor of physical geography at University College London, told the Guardian, “For one rocket launch it’s 200-300 tonnes of carbon dioxide carrying 4 or so passengers – close on two orders of magnitude more,” according to Marais.

New figures estimate that the space tourism market is estimated to reach $2.58bn in 2031, growing 17.15% each year of the next decade. This makes curbing the industry’s environmental impacts especially crucial.

 

Failure to Launch? Most space transportation has focused on transporting cargo to the International Space Station and satellite launch services. Lately, private companies have turned to in-space transportation, planetary explorations, crewed missions, suborbital transportation and space tourism.

Some find it dispiriting that billionaires have been pursuing private space travel — and pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere in the process — when they could be funneling this money into improving life here on Earth. For instance, the former US Labor Secretary Robert Reich tweeted last week: “Is anyone else alarmed that billionaires are having their own private space race while record-breaking heatwaves are sparking a ‘fire-breathing dragon of clouds’ and cooking sea creatures to death in their shells?”

Eloise Marais told the Guardian that it’s possible to have new developments in space technology without sacrificing environmental responsibility. She suggested that the space tourism industry should proceed with caution, even though there are currently no international rules around the kinds of fuels used and their impact on the environment.

We have no regulations currently around rocket emissions, she said.The time to act is now – while the billionaires are still buying their tickets.”

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