Scientists question the environmental impact of space travel

The future of the space industry continues to look as bright as the stars—at least for the ultra-wealthy. Here are on Earth, however, scientists are skeptical about whether its impact will be a positive one. 

A testament of wealth 

Jeff Bezos became the second billionaire to launch himself into space this year after Richard Branson began the trend earlier last month. Elon Musk plans on following suit sometime this September, and celebrities like Justin Bieber,​ Tom Hanks, and Lady Gaga have already expressed interest in going themselves (1). 

 

While these people may make headlines, space travel is still an incredibly rare phenomenon. The $200,000+ price tag may have something to do with that (2). 

A disproportionate impact

Many people have criticized these modern odysseys as being out of touch. It’s hard to justify gallivanting around space when issues like wealth inequality and climate change are worse than ever. 

 

Environmentalists are also criticizing these trips for having disproportionate effects on the planet. 

 

Richard Branson has claimed that his journey into space used no more fuel than a business-class trip from London to New York. 


The obvious issue with that claim, however, is that Richard Branson traveled with a crew of five people, while most people share a flight across the Atlantic with hundreds of others. In addition, those flights last for hours, while Branson was in the atmosphere for a matter of minutes. 

 

The emissions from his single trip equate to 4.5 tons per passenger. That’s equivalent to driving a car across the entire Earth! 

A growing problem

While it may be out of reach of most people right now, climate experts fear that as it becomes more affordable, the environmental impact of space travel will worsen. 

 

Jeff Bezos has already talked about how high the demand is for seats on his company’s trips to space. To accommodate that, he plans on doing two more trips this year, with many more later on (3).

 

Likewise, Richard Branson’s company Virgin Galactic plans on launching more than 400 flights into space each year (4). 

 

While such massive supply increases may make flights more affordable, it also means that the effects on the environment will become more pronounced. With hundreds of flights taking off for space each year, it’s hard to imagine that the perks of a 10-90 minute joyride will outweigh the environmental damage that goes along with it. 

Go green? 

As with any mode of transportation, there seem to be ways to make space travel greener. Jeff Bezos’ company Blue Origin claims to already be taking steps towards sustainability.

 

It claims that the fuel its rockets use contains liquid hydrogen and oxygen, and because of that, does minimal harm to the environment. While it’s true that Bezos’ rocket didn’t release carbon dioxide, experts believe that it could still have had other environmental effects (5).

A question of morality 

Regardless of how good the view is, traveling to space raises a lot of morality questions. When 63% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck and much of the world continues to suffer through COVID-19, how can the rich justify taking joyrides through the atmosphere (6)? 

 

As space travel becomes more common, the people partaking in it will need to answer these sorts of questions. Let’s hope they have their stories straight. 

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