There are valid reasons for space launches. The GPS navigation we use in our cars would not be possible without satellites. The Space Station supports scientific research, so space flights that shuttle astronauts and freight to and from the station are valid. And unfortunately, missiles and satellites are necessary for defense.
But space flight to support a billionaire’s ego? On Sunday, the 11th of July, Virgin Galactic owner Richard Branson took a ride to an altitude 50 miles over Earth. This gave Branson and his five crewmates about three minutes of weightlessness and spectacular views of Earth.
Elon Musk has booked a seat on a future Virgin Galactic space flight. Musk is one of 600 people to put down a $10,000 deposit toward a total cost of $250,000 for a trip.
On July 20, another billionaire, Jeff Bezos, is scheduled to take another rocket to the edge of space. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, founded the rocket company Blue Origin. Bezos will fly on the mission, along with his brother Mark and one additional passenger. That open seat sold for $28 million. We do not yet know who bought that seat.
When it comes to billionaire bragging rights, buying a sixth mansion just does not have the same cachet as space tourism.
I could not find any documentation on the carbon emissions associated with Virgin Galactic or Blue Origin flights. A SpaceX flight, however, generates the annual carbon footprint of 278 average world citizens. Space flight is among the most carbon intensive of human endeavors.
Today, all virtually all tourism creates CO2 emissions. An economy-class flight from New York City to London emits the equivalent to 11% of an individual’s average annual carbon emissions. But the scale of the difference between space tourism and more mundane approaches to travel is astonishing.
If you go to the Virgin Galactic web site, the business model is built around tourism. On the Blue Origin website the vision is more palatable: “Blue Origin … with the vision of enabling a future where millions of people are living and working in space to benefit Earth. In order to preserve Earth, Blue Origin believes that humanity will need to expand, explore, find new energy and material resources, and move industries that stress Earth into space. Blue is working on this today by developing partially and fully reusable launch vehicles that are safe, low cost and serve the needs of all civil, commercial and defense customers.” In this vision, space flight is a new mode of transportation for carrying freight and supporting industry.
But achieving this vision, if it is achievable, is going to carry a heavy price for the environment.