Environmental Upside to Commercial Space Travel?

A crowd of space tourism enthusiasts cheered on Richard Branson as he opened the world’s first commercial spaceport in New Mexico on October 17th, 2011. Those at home watching the spectacle on the news didn’t have as much to celebrate. While the taxpayer-funded $209-million spaceport has caused some American blood to boil, some environmentalists are even more disturbed by the thought of commercial space travel.

Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic will be offering suborbital space rides that include five minutes at zero-G and a view of the Earth for $200,000 a pop, once testing wraps up in the next year or so. The commercial space travel pioneer plans to offer two flights daily. And competitors are already lining up for their part in this fledgling industry.

Creating a polluting industry at this time of climate crisis is bound to raise some questions. Spaceflight is highly polluting, but is generally overlooked as a target for carbon emission reductions because of the limited number of rocket launches and the positive contribution space exploration makes to scientific research. Space shuttle launches average 28 tons of carbon dioxide emissions, in addition to 300,000 gallons of water needed to protect against launch vibrations, transportation of the rockets and fuel, other particulate emissions and hydrochloric acid, causing an environmental cost equivalent to that of New York City in a weekend, says Virgin Galactic’s former president, Will Whitehorn.

When compared to the highly polluting space shuttle launches, Virgin Galactic’s flights appear to have a miniscule environmental impact. They’ll be able to send someone to space for approximately 60% of the CO2 emissions per passenger of a return commercial London to New York flight. To cut down on the amount of fuel needed to power the flight, Virgin Galactic’s spaceships are designed with lightweight carbon-composite materials and also feature efficient turbo fan jet engines and reusable materials to ensure there’s no space debris.

Though carbon emissions may be equivalent to airplane travel, a study by the American Geophysical Union discovered an environmental cost to commercial space travel that’s far worse. Soot particles emitted by spaceships will accumulate in the stratosphere at an altitude of approximately 40 kilometres, absorbing sunlight that can cool the Earth’s surface by as much as 0.7 degrees Celsius (1.2 degrees Fahrenheit) and heat up Antarctica by as much as 0.8 degrees C (1.5 degrees F), causing a 5–15% reduction in polar sea ice and a loss of ozone from 1% at the equator to 10% at the poles.

The research team generated modeling data based on a 600 ton injection of black carbon per year at Las Cruces, New Mexico, to replicate the effects of 1000 flights from that location annually. They found that the soot remained in the stratosphere within 10 degrees of the launch site, forming a black soot cloud that can remain in the sky for three to ten years. That same soot emitting from power plants or airplanes stays in the atmosphere for a few days or weeks, but eventually gets washed back down to Earth by rain and weather, making its environmental impact minimal when compared t0 the high-flying spaceships. The team’s findings are based on reasonable assumptions on rocket chemistry and atmospheric physics, but they point out that they’ll need to run further tests to gain confidence in their preliminary results.

Virgin Galactic is committed to offsetting the environmental costs of their space program. Their test crafts have been equipped with instruments to measure carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases in the upper atmosphere. In an interview with Coexist, Branson says that his company can put satellites into space for almost no carbon output since they will be launched from 60,000 feet rather than from land. By investing profits from Virgin’s airline businesses into clean biofuels, they’ll be creating a future of cleaner fuel for a highly polluting industry. “NASA won’t have any more spaceships going to space for a few years, and they started doing contracts with Virgin Galactic,” Branson says, further defending his company. “There will be a lot of scientific expeditions and quite a lot of environmental scientific expeditions to try and work out what’s going on in the ozone layer and to try to deal with global warming skeptics, to try to prove it conclusively.”

“Taking payloads of the very rich for what is tantamount to a joy ride in the atmosphere and attempting to link this to real scientific endeavor is risible nonsense,” says the Aviation Environment Federation, a UK-based NGO focused on reducing aviation’s negative environmental impact. The organization suggests imposing the same regulation on space travel that the commercial air transportation industry faces in terms of design, safety, and environmental performance standards once the industry grows to 1000 passengers per year.

Some believe that sending people into space where they can look down in awe at the Earth will create environmentalists. Branson is quick to point out that those who have already been to space have become quite committed to protecting the Earth. He believes the same will be true for passengers aboard Virgin Galactic. With the high price tag, these flights are only attracting the most wealthy clients. If they come back down to Earth and commit their vast resources to protecting it, that indeed can have a great impact.

Critics suggest that taking a highly polluting flight to space is not the right approach for would be environmentalists. Why go to space to see the Earth’s beauty when you can explore it right here on Earth. All it takes is a nice hike in the mountains or a walk through a forest to see the immense beauty that lies underfoot.

The argument about creating environmentalists out of astronauts mirrors the bigger picture that Virgin Galactic hopes to accomplish through commercial space tourism. They want to invest profits from their airlines into creating clean biofuels that the entire aviation industry can use. That’s a great, noble cause, but what are the costs? The creation of a frivolous industry that drops as much soot in the atmosphere (in its early years of 1000 flights a year) as the entire aviation industry’s 30 million commercial flights per year. Research into clean fuels for airplanes can be done without creating a black hole here on Earth just for the sake of entertaining a few people.

Back nearly a century ago when commercial air travel first got going, the skies seemed limitless. Space seems that way now, but inevitably the ticket to ride to space will drop, fuelling growth in this industry, which means we could be looking up at a giant black cloud in the sky some years from now.