Will space tourism make the climate change crisis worse?

For its many detractors, space tourism is nothing more than a ride for the global super-rich that will worsen the planet’s climate crisis.

But the nascent sector also has proponents who, without outright dismissing the critics, argue that the industry can also bring benefits to humanity.

More research opportunities

The first argument is that private spaceflights, in addition to their customers, can send scientific experiments into space that require microgravity environments.

In the past, national agencies “took a long time to work through government grant channels, get approval, get funding, get chosen to be among the few that can go,” MIT’s Ariel Ekblaw Space Exploration Initiative told AFP.

By contrast, it took Ekblaw just six months from signing a contract to sending his research project to the International Space Station aboard the privately owned Ax-1 mission, which lifted off on Friday thanks to private contractors who paid for the trip.

His experiment, called TESSERAE, involves smart tiles that form a floating robotic swarm that can self-assemble into space architecture – which could be how future space stations are built.

An earlier prototype was sent into space for a few minutes aboard a Blue Origin suborbital spaceflight, paving the way for the new test.

“The proliferation of these commercial launch vendors allows us to deliver riskier, faster and more innovative projects,” Ekblaw said.

Virgin Galactic, for its part, has announced plans to take scientists on future flights.

Best space technology

Space tourism, and the private space sector as a whole, also acts as a driver of innovation to improve in all things space.

Government agencies, which run on taxpayers’ money, act cautiously and are deeply averse to failure, while companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX are not shy about blowing up prototype rockets until that they succeed, which speeds up development cycles.

Where NASA is focused on big exploration goals, private companies are looking to improve the pace, cost-effectiveness and sustainability of launches, with reusable ships — and in the case of Blue Origin, rockets that don’t emit. than water vapour.

For now, spaceflight remains a risky and expensive business.

“The further we go into space, the better we become in space, the more an industrial base is created to support space technology,” said Mason Peck, professor of aeronautics at Cornell University, who was previously a space technologist. head of NASA.

A parallel can be drawn with the first era of aviation, when flight was reserved for a privileged few.

“We started with a lot of crashes and a lot of different companies with different kinds of ideas on how to build airplanes,” said George Nield, former associate administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) office of commercial space transportation. .

“But little by little, we learned what works, what doesn’t.” Commercial air travel is statistically the safest mode of transportation today.

But what will safer and more efficient spaceflight actually achieve?

According to experts, it is currently difficult to imagine the future impact of space on transport.

“Just in the next 10 years, I’m pretty confident that we’re going to see companies that have systems that can get people off the ground from one point on Earth and traveling to the other side of Earth, like an hour” , said Nield, who was on BlueOrigin’s final flight.

Such point-to-point travel would probably end up happening anyway, but space tourism is accelerating its advent, he added.

Environmental benefit?

The last argument, paradoxically, has to do with the climate.

Many who have observed Earth from outer space have said they have been deeply moved by the fragility of the planet and overwhelmed with the desire to protect it.

The phenomenon has been dubbed the “big picture effect” by space philosopher Frank White.

“It gives you a sense of urgency that you need to be part of the solution,” said Jane Poynter, co-founder of Space Perspective.

His company plans to start flying tourists on a giant balloon at high altitude to observe the curvature of the Earth from a capsule with panoramic views.

The ship was developed precisely for its minimal environmental impact, unlike some high-polluting rockets.

The overall contribution to climate change from rockets is currently minimal, but could become problematic if the number of launches increases.

Increased activity in space may also help the planet in more practical and less philosophical ways, industry advocates say.

“Due to advances in space technology, terrestrial solar cells have become more efficient over the years,” Peck said.

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