How can we prioritize sustainability in the free market as disruptive innovations like space tourism become more accessible? A burgeoning space tourism industry is gearing up for significant expansion. Critics believe that increasing space flights would be detrimental to the climate.
In the past year, two billionaire-backed companies (Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin) have completed successful test flights of their space tourism vehicles.
And last week, SpaceX, the company founded by Tesla CEO Elon Musk, announced that it had raised $1 billion from investors to help fund the development of its space tourism vehicle.
Let’s find out how retail space flights will impact the climate.
Dig deeper ➝ 2 min
Virgin and Blue Origin’s Story
While the number of space tourism flights is very low, projections for the industry’s growth are ambitious. Virgin Galactic, for example, has said that it hopes to carry tens of thousands of passengers annually by the mid-2030s. If the industry grows at this pace, the climate impacts could be significant.
Even a relatively small increase in the number of launches could significantly impact the climate because of the unique properties of black carbon in the stratosphere. More on black carbon below.
One study found that if the space tourism industry grew to just 1% of the size of the commercial aviation industry, it would result in the emission of between 1,000 and 10,000 metric tons of black carbon into the stratosphere each year. This is the equivalent of the annual emissions of between 1 million and 10 million cars.
The study also found that space tourism could significantly impact the ozone layer, which protects life on Earth from harmful ultraviolet radiation. Ozone appears when ultraviolet light interacts with atmospheric oxygen. However, black carbon particles can act as “catalysts” that accelerate ozone destruction.
If the space tourism industry grows unchecked, it could seriously impact the ozone layer and contribute to climate change.
The study’s authors say that the space tourism industry should be regulated to ensure its growth does not come at the expense of the environment. They suggest that measures such as fuel taxes or emission limits could be used to discourage the use of black carbon-producing rocket engines.
The space tourism industry is in its infancy, but it is increasing, and we need to consider the long-term consequences of its expansion. If we don’t regulate it now, we may live to regret it.
Space tourism comes with a climate cost
Even a slight increase in retail space trips could quickly fuel significant global warming while depleting the protective ozone layer crucial for sustaining life on Earth.
Black carbon emitted in the stratosphere is nearly 500 times worse for the climate than similar emissions on or near the Earth’s surface.
The news comes as rocket companies gear up for a significant expansion. How can a sensitive natural ecosystem withstand these unforeseen consequences?
Alluding to the principles of “technology with a human face” in EF Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful, not all forms of innovation are worthy of adoption. If a wider adoption of space flight technology at the retail level serves no real market purpose beyond vanity and amusement, society should reconsider its voyage beyond the boundaries of the stratosphere.
Every luxury good comes at a cost. At SR, we’ve critiqued the proliferation of electric cars and the atrocities of cobalt mining for EV batteries. We’ve pointed out the flaws of recycling electronics or buying Starbucks coffee. These consumer choices are complex trade-offs thrown into an even more complex web of modern existentialism and international commerce.
I understand why we want to vacation in space. But we must stop and ask ourselves – in the face of rising temperatures, deforestation, and plastic pollution – is this really a fight worth fighting for?