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Space tourism in a nutshell
Space enthusiasts are surely familiar with the emerging market of space tourism. SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, Boeing – many companies are planning to send tourist to space on a big scale starting in the next years. This development sparks wonder and admiration, but also controversy. Millionaires are firing rockets to space for little more than their pure enjoyment – which does not seem like a very environmentally responsible thing to do.
But what is the actual environmental impact of space tourism? We will take a closer look at one aspect of space tourism – sub-orbital rocket-powered flight, which encompasses rockets bringing tourists beyond into space but not into a full orbit around the earth. This type of flight is currently offered by Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin.
What we do however also need is some scale of reference to make the environmental impact of space tourism comparable. The obvious choice is comparing the new form of flight to one known by us all – commercial passenger planes!
Let us try to answer the burning question: What’s worse for the environment, space tourism or regular passenger flights?
Comparing transatlantic and suborbital flights
The global passenger flight industry will have an extrapolated 55 Mio. departures in 2031, emitting about 2 billion tonnes of CO2 – massive numbers, but this certainly doesn’t come as a surprise. Since virtually every single one of us has made use of passenger flight, it stands to reason that the industry is of significant size. Space tourists, that it something that – according to a survey – almost half of Americans would like to consider themselves, but the financial part just won’t work out. After all, an 11-minute space flight with Blue Origin will strip your wallet of about 200 thousand dollars, Virgin Galactic will even charge you as much as 400 thousand dollars for a trip beyond the Karman line.
So, space tourism is certainly no bargain, which is what keeps the market size quite small relative to conventional passenger flight with about 70 thousand flight departures to every sub-orbital passenger launch by Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin. Most of us just cannot afford the pricy joy of shooting towards the stars in a posh rocket. Still, sub-orbital rocket launches by Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin can be expected to emit about 186 thousand tonnes of CO2 in 2031, which makes up about the 11th part of emissions in the same year by passenger plane flights.
The fact that tourism in space will be reserved for the richer members of society at least in the near future sparks a mixture of jealousy and honest environmental concern in the public mind: Why should they be allowed to pollute the earth with their rocket launches just for fun?
Why every person matters
In fact, a transatlantic flight from London Heathrow to JFK New York and back emits about 800 tonnes of CO2, which about 3.5x as much as a single sub-orbital rocket launch can be expected to emit – so are transatlantic flights in fact worse for the environment?
Right here is the point where we realize: the individual person matters. A transatlantic flight might emit more CO2 than a sub-orbital rocket launch with Virgin Galactic’s and Blue Origin’s engines, but it flies an average of 241 passengers across the big, big ocean. A sub-orbital rocket holds a mere 6 space tourists – what a contrast!
These numbers significantly influence the emissions per flight per person, making a transatlantic passenger cause about 3.6 tonnes of CO2 with one roundtrip and a space tourist more than 10x times as much with 38.5 tonnes for a single launch.
And well, the numbers become even more concerning: A single space tourist emits with a single fun trip as much CO2 as the global average person does in more than 8 years! In conclusion, space tourism as an industry is not on an immediate way to become a broadly significant factor in climate change, however we must ask ourselves: Is it ethically defensible to emit more than 8 years’ worth of personal CO2 for a few minutes of very expensive weightlessness?
Author: Anna Kucera, OeWF. The arcticle was written in the context of her OeWF summer internship.
This article is available in: German
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