In recent years, the final frontier, space travel has entered the private sector for the first time, resulting in what is being dubbed the billionaire space race. Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin are all competing to offer commercial space tourism to the masses. Now however, commercial space travel is reserved only for the super-rich and powerful. If commercial space tourism must exist then it should probably remain this way, with the carbon footprint of the industry heading for a rapid rise as privately flying into space becomes a more frequent occurrence. All this to say though, commercial space travel does not need to and probably should not exist. The men involved in the space race are some of the richest and most powerful men on the Earth, there is a climate crisis which needs attention, and some have argued that it is being ignored for pointless vanity missions to space. Jeff Bezos spoke at the pivotal climate summit COP26, saying after his trip to space he looked down on Earth and he realised it is “beautiful but fragile”, the fact that he needed to spend billions travelling to space to realise that is worrying.
Who are the three main players in the billionaire space race and what are they trying to achieve? Firstly, there is Elon Musk, South African tech tycoon and owner of SpaceX. Musk, who as of 2021 is said to be the richest man on the Earth was the first man to send a private crewed flight into space in 2020. Musk’s long-term mission is to colonise Mars, originally getting involved in space travel in 2001 after becoming interested in using Mars as an off-planet greenhouse. Out of the three space travel pioneers, it must be said that Musk’s endeavours have the most potential benefit to society, however, he did kickstart the idea that anyone with enough money can start flying into space if they want to. This leads nicely onto Richard Branson, founder of Virgin and more specifically, Virgin Galactic the space tourism branch of his business empire. Where Musk is potentially trying to offer an alternative planet with Mars, Branson is simply interested in allowing people to fly into space and back. Beginning space tourism, which Branson himself took part on in July making him the first spaceflight company founder to take themselves into space and also the first space tourist. Whilst expensive now Branson hopes the space tourism cost will be minimised eventually. Finally, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos behind Blue Origin, again in interested in commercial space flights and has also declared interest in creating an industrial base in space.
Travelling to space obviously is not friendly to the environment, each flight to space is estimated to produce 300 tons of carbon dioxide into the upper atmosphere where it can remain for years. Many government-led space expeditions are scientifically valuable and in fact are beneficial to our understanding of our planet and climate change, however, commercial flights are not. Many have criticised the billionaire owners of these space companies for not investing their money and time into ways of helping our planet, Richard Branson has said that critics who believe that he should use his vast wealth to address issues such as climate change “are not fully educated as to what space does for Earth.” Jeff Bezos pledged $2bn investment into restoring natural habitats and making food systems more resilient on Earth. However, $2bn isn't even half of what he spent on his environment damaging space trip. This is also more worrying when Amazon’s carbon footprint which has risen every year since 2018, emitted 60.64 million metric tons of carbon dioxide last year the equivalent of burning through 140 million barrels of oil. Considering the carbon footprint of his company, his pledge seems likely to be a PR move. The private space expeditions are giving traditional space travel a bad reputation with astronaut Tim Peake saying he is disappointed vital space travel is getting lumped in with billionaire space tourism, claiming we will never tackle climate change without venturing off the planet.
The issue we face now is that space exploration and travel will move away from being beneficial to the planet and instead beneficial to a few rich men. We may see a cold war style battle for dominance in the commercial market with each company fighting for a bigger piece of the action. Musk’s SpaceX stock is rising and has already sent many rockets into space and Branson’s commercial flights are due to start in 2022. Whilst the carbon emissions from rockets are small compared with the aircraft industry, they are increasing at nearly 5.6% a year. This will only grow higher if things stay the same. Emissions from rockets are emitted right into the upper atmosphere, which means they stay there for a long time. Space launches also inject particles into the stratosphere that absorb and reflect solar energy, heating the stratosphere while cooling the surface. These thermal changes also lead to the depletion of the ozone layer. With no current legal or financial regulations in place against commercial space travel, governing bodies need to do more to ensure that this does not snowball out of control. These billionaires must ensure that their expeditions are either beneficial to our planet or that they offset their footprint by financing more environmental projects on Earth.