Is the commercialization of space travel worth the costs?
On July 20, 1969, over 600 million people were glued to their television sets as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the moon.
With their enormously popular lunar broadcast, Armstrong and Aldrin effectively declared the United States victorious in the Space Race—a competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union to prove their technological superiority.
The moon and stars enraptured earth-bound Americans as they watched astronauts defy gravity.
Since Armstrong and Aldrin first landed on the moon, NASA’s budget has declined and the government’s focus on space has dwindled. However, a new competition has commenced—not between nations, but between billionaires. Owned by Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson respectively— SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic are seeking to relaunch America into an outer space frenzy. This time, with the commercialization of space travel.
Although the standings of this modern-day “space race” are often shifting, the potential consequences linger and new questions arise. What are the environmental effects of frequent rocket launches? And, what actions are companies taking to fend off irreversible earthly damage?
Tim Swanson—Minnehaha Academy Science teacher and leader of the ISS Team—acknowledges both the pros and cons of space commercialization but remains ecstatic about the opportunities it could provide.
“There’s a lot to talk about—both the good and the bad,” explained Swanson. “But, I really am hopeful. It excites me to think about industries in space.”
This year, SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Blue Origin have all accomplished impressive feats in the niche market of space tourism. Both Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin have successfully sent individuals on brief, suborbital joy rides, but the companies have traded the lead many times in their “race”.
In July, Branson and his crew escaped the atmosphere nine days before Bezos. Despite this, Virgin Galactic is now an estimated year behind Blue Origin after the company announced it will spend time improving its technologies until late 2022. SpaceX is in a league of its own. Responsible for sending 130 rockets to space since its founding, Musk’s company owned the first commercial spacecraft to deliver cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station. Further, SpaceX has disregarded trips to the edge of space and, instead, launched four non-astronauts into orbit for several days this September on the Inspiration4 mission.
Impact on the Earth
With the “competition” between Blue Origin, SpaceX, and Virgin Galactic heating up, the number of rocket launches is increasing rapidly. Each launch emits an array of environmentally damaging substances, and scientists are beginning to study how rocket exhaust affects the atmosphere.
Minnehaha Academy junior, Sofia Howland, is upset at Bezos, Branson, and Musk for harming the environment with rocket launches.
“Why should the rich get to pollute the environment?” asked Howland. “It’s infuriating! Space is a cool opportunity, but why should they get to harm the environment with no consequences?”
The carbon dioxide released during a Virgin Galactic flight equates to the carbon dioxide released while flying across the Atlantic in business class. Further, the launch of one SpaceX reusable rocket emits as much carbon dioxide as a commercial airplane flying continuously for three years.
In addition to generating a large carbon footprint, rockets discharge soot (or “black carbon”) directly into the earth’s upper atmosphere where it circulates for up to five years. Moreover, spacecrafts endanger the ozone—a protective layer responsible for shielding the earth from harmful ultraviolet light. During the trip to space, rocket exhaust is ejected straight into the stratosphere where the ozone is located. There, the alumina particles and chlorine gas contained in the exhaust facilitate the chemical breakdown of the ozone.
In response to space travel’s detrimental effects on the environment, Virgin Galactic has publicly announced that they’re “examining opportunities to offset the carbon emission for future customer flights.”
Martin Ross, an atmospheric scientist at The Aerospace Corp, is wary of space commercialization companies.
“We’d like to avoid a surprising future,” Ross told CNBC. “We’d like to say right now the space industry can move forward in a sustainable manner.”
Despite the potential environmental consequences, Swanson is hopeful for the future of space travel.
“In getting out in the solar system—discovering new beautiful things and seeing new beautiful sights that human eyes have never seen before—the hope would be that it would give us a new, more beautiful view of our earth that would lead us to take better care of it,” described Swanson. “Something you view as beautiful is harder to destroy.”
Ultimately, Musk, Bezos, and Branson have acknowledged the necessity of sustainable rockets.
On its website, Blue Origin states: “In order to preserve Earth, humanity will need to expand, explore, find new energy and material resources, and move industries that stress Earth into space.” To carry out this vision of preserving the earth, Bezos’ company is working to assemble rockets that are able to be fully or partially reused. Their New Shepard rocket utilizes hydrogen and oxygen—both carbon-free fuels.
Overall, Blue Origin wants to manufacture launch vehicles with reusable liquid engines that can take off and land vertically. Resolutely, they’ve stated that their intentions are to “return Americans to the surface of the moon—this time to stay.”
SpaceX is also devoted to sustainability efforts. The company is focusing on building rockets able to withstand re-entry (a stage of landing that forces most rockets to burn up), and their falcon launch vehicles are the first spacecrafts to be completely reusable.
Gabe King, a Minnehaha Academy junior, perceives the benefits of today’s “space race” but also has some critiques.
“First off, we need to fix the planet we have before we go off into other ones,” commented King. “Second, competition within the space sector and competition within all sectors is a good thing. Competition makes things better and I think competition with NASA is needed. Third, I would love to have that opportunity—to go to space. I’ve always dreamed of being an astronaut. It’s a good opportunity because it’s fixing the narrative that civilians can’t be in space.”
Altogether, despite the environmental risks, many are elated about today’s “space race” due to its thrilling promise—the possibility of spending time amongst the moon and stars.
On the SpaceX website, Elon Musk states the manifesto behind his company’s space commercialization.
“You want to wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be great—and that’s what being a spacefaring civilization is all about,” reflected Musk. “It’s about believing in the future and thinking that the future will be better than the past. And I can’t think of anything more exciting than going out there and being among the stars.”