Space tourism is on the rise. How is this going to affect the 99% that will remain on earth? | New times
In the past few weeks, one topic has captured the attention of all media, tweets and posts; Space. It seems like every tech mogul on the face of the earth has now found a way out of it. First it was Sir Richard Branson, who flew in his Virgin Galactic rocket plane on July 11, reaching the “edge of space”, about 90 km above the ground. He was quickly followed by Jeff Bezzos, who flew his New Shepard rocket which took him with 3 other members just above the “edge”.
The new space race, catapulted by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, has grown in popularity as more influential business figures spend a large chunk of their fortunes on making space travel a business experience for the masses. And as space tourism becomes a real trend among the multi-billionaire crowd, a very important question arises: how will it affect climate change?
Chicken, beef or GHG emissions?
Reaching space, or more precisely the edge of space, requires various abilities that these private companies have been honing for decades. They also require a large amount of fuel. Blue Origin’s rockets, The Blue Engine 3 (BE-3) were launched into space using liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen thrusters.
The Unity VSS, meanwhile, used a hybrid propellant comprised of a solid carbon-based fuel, hydroxyl-terminated polybutadiene (HTPB), and nitrous oxide, while the SpaceX Falcon series of reusable rockets will propel to the using liquid kerosene and liquid oxygen. .
The combustion of these thrusters provides the energy necessary to launch the rockets into space, while generating an absurd amount of greenhouse gases and air pollutants. Large amounts of water vapor are also produced in the process, while the nitrogen-based oxidant used also generates nitrogen oxides, compounds that contribute to air pollution closer to Earth. . About two-thirds of these exhaust gases are released into the stratosphere (12 km-50 km) and the mesosphere (50 km-85 km), where they can persist for at least two to three years. Basically, regardless of the fuel used, all launches emit a lot of heat which stirs the nitrogen in the atmosphere to create disruptive nitrogen oxides.
So what does all of this mean in more relevant terms? Well, the emissions from a typical commercial flight to space are roughly equivalent to driving a typical car around the Earth, and more than double the annual individual carbon budget recommended to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. It also takes a lot of steel and aluminum to build a rocket. For every ton of steel produced, 1.9 tons of carbon dioxide are emitted. This number rises to 11.5 tonnes for aluminum. An empty ship is made of about 200 tons of alloy steel. This does not include the rocket, which weighs around an additional 300 tonnes.
The environmental price is astronomical
For most of us, the only possible point of comparison would be air travel, which is the only common type of flying human being. Today, there are 80,000 to 130,000 flights per day, and the United Nations aviation body has predicted that this aircraft’s carbon dioxide emissions, to exceed 900 million metric tons in 2018, and will triple by 2050. It also contributes to the production of nitrogen oxides in the atmosphere, and compared to massive and permanent industries like transport, energy and agriculture, commercial space travel may not seem like it. a big problem. Still.
But with hundreds of millions of dollars already pledged for future space travel, rocket launches will no doubt become more common. Virgin Galactic, for example, has announced that it is striving to reach 400 annual flights. As field research is only flourishing, we do not yet know all the consequences of this nascent industry.
Take the example of the Virgin Galactic rocket. The flight carried six passengers and reached an altitude of 85.3 kilometers, and according to information provided by the company, estimates show that carbon emissions per passenger-mile are about 60 times that of a flight in business class from London to New York. And this is only an estimate. Others show that the CO2 emissions for about four tourists on a space flight can reach up to 100 times more than one to three tonnes of emissions generated per passenger on a long-haul plane flight. .
According to Business Wire, the global space tourism market, estimated at US $ 651 million in 2020, is expected to reach US $ 1.7 billion by 2027, with a CAGR of 15.2%. And according to several newspapers, it is also expected to emit hundreds of millions of tonnes of GHG emissions. In a world frantically searching for sustainable measures to offset its growing climate crisis, one has to think: is a few minutes in zero gravity really worth it?
The author is an entrepreneur and investor, leading sustainable businesses in Africa and the Middle East.