Bezos’ New Shepard rocket, made by his company Blue Origin, runs on a combination of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen. Though neither of those emit carbon when they’re burned, producing liquid hydrogen usually does. Compressing and liquifying the oxygen for the fuel is also an energy-intensive process that, if not done using renewables, results in carbon pollution.
Refining and burning these fuels isn’t just the equivalent of a tank of gas for your car. They’re not even necessarily equal to using jet fuel to hop a coast-to-coast flight.
“The Virgin Galactic flight carried six passengers and reached an altitude of 53 miles [85.3 kilometers], and from information provided by Virgin Galactic, we can estimate that carbon emissions per passenger mile are about 60 times that of a business class flight,” Peter Kalmus, a climate scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said, adding that “more research is needed to understand the full climate impact.”
Branson has said that the emissions from his flight will be offset by investing in projects that suck up carbon elsewhere. But planting trees and encouraging regenerative agriculture doesn’t undo the damage of his joy ride. Forestry offset projects have also proven to be both ineffective and unjust. Blue Origin, meanwhile, has focused on how much less polluting Bezos’ flight will be than Branson’s was.
These flights to the edge of space will add to Bezos’ and Branson’s individual carbon impacts, which are already cartoonishly large thanks to their propensity for behavior such as regularly flying private. (A single private jet trip can emit nearly double the amount of carbon than the average American does in an entire year). But though infuriating, there aren’t that many of these flights taking off, so the overall environmental effects aren’t that big.
“Contemporary attempts to boost suborbital and orbital space tourism (such as those attempted by Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin) are still at an early stage of development,” said Nikolaos Iliopoulos, a doctoral candidate in sustainability at the University of Tokyo who researches space travel’s environmental impact. “Thus, as of today, space tourism presents limited socio-environmental impacts as space tourism vehicles travel to the orbit and back.”
But in the near future, Branson and Bezos as well as Musk want that to change. Branson’s Virgin Atlantic wants to “open space to everyone.” Bezos’ Blue Origin wants to “increase access to space.” And Musk’s SpaceX wants to “make humanity multi-planetary.”
Though these companies all make it sound like the missions are for the masses, the price tags say otherwise. A yet-unnamed person, for instance, paid $28 million to be a passenger on Bezos’ Tuesday trip up to space. (They subsequently and improbably had a scheduling conflict, and an investment firm CEO’s 18-year-old son will take the seat instead.) Future Virgin Galactic flights are priced between $200,000 and $250,000.
Rich people are already responsible for a disproportionate amount of carbon emissions. Just 1% of the global population is responsible for half of the world’s commercial flight emissions. That doesn’t even account for the even more elite select few who can fly private. [Continue reading…]