The race to join the space tourism bandwagon has sparked fears that regular commercial flights may lead to a spike in black carbon emissions. As the super-rich gushes about it being an experience of a lifetime, it is obvious that they are looking at the commercial angle to it, and not merely taking a joy ride.
Their space sojourns in the name of space tourism symbolize the blatant consumerism that is turning our planet into a giant trash can. Lost amidst the frenzy of this new form of frontier tourism is the fact that this fossil-fuelled journey hid the heartbreaking carbon costs behind it.
Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is being followed by Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. Elon Musk’s SpaceX is geared to an orbital mission with a civilian passenger list. But the outbreak of enthusiasm for the space tourism business is facing hard questions about the environmental impact when the world is looking for ways to cut back on its carbon footprints.
The present space industry is too few and far between to warrant concern about its carbon emission. And most flights have a scientific purpose behind them. But space tourism portends to be another ball game altogether.
Chief climate advisor to NASA, Gavin Schmidt said that the present emission rate of carbon dioxide is insignificant when compared to regular human activities including commercial aviation.
Space Tourism Expected To Have Major Implication On The Stratosphere
But space tourism is in a different league altogether. There is bound to be a major growth in space tourism that will regularly impact atmospheric layers that are presently untouched by commercial flights.
Virgin Galactic, first off the blocks in the space tourism race, have claimed that their carbon discharge is negligible and equal to a normal business-class ride between London and New York. Virgin has also said that it was exploring ways to reduce the carbon footprints further.
But they failed to mention that while transatlantic trips transport hundreds of passengers, the space tourism flight undertaken by Richard Branson emitted a whopping 4.5 tons per passenger. That is the equivalent of driving a car across the Earth. It is also double the carbon budget suggested for individuals if they are to meet the Paris climate accord budget.
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Atmospheric scientist Darin Toohey said that the disproportionate impact was the main issue here. Virgin Galactic used a form of synthetic rubber that burnt with the help of nitrous oxide. The black carbon emitted by using the fuel is pumped into the upper stratosphere, which is between 18 and 30 miles (30 to 50 kilometers). When you multiply it 400 times, the number of planned flights a year, the figures are staggering.
While Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin merely achieved suborbital heights, SpaceX is set to send 4 passengers into orbit and that will emit carbon emissions equivalent to 395 transatlantic flights.