The month of July 2021 goes into the books as historical for space travel. On July 11, billionaire Richard Branson (CEO of Virgin Galactic) got into space and today Amazon founder Jeff Bezos followed with his company Blue Origin. Do the billionaires space trips stand for innovation and hope, as they themselves claim, or are their rocket journeys the pinnacle of waste of fuel and capital?
Branson was there earlier and Bezos went higher, but both billionaires undoubtedly loosened a lot with their flights. And then there‘s Tesla owner Elon Musk, who, with his company, SpaceX wants to sell around the moon flights and colonize Mars within a few years.
Their commercial efforts are remarkable; the space field has long been dominated exclusively by government agencies such as ESA and NASA. With the entrepreneurs’ space trips, commercial parties are now intermingling in the exploration of the cosmos.
This afternoon the space flight of Bezos (and Dutchman Oliver Daemen, who was allowed to join):
matter how innovative, not everyone is positive about that. Greenpeace, among other things, highlights the polluting aspect of such space travel. According to the environmental organization, Bezos‘ space travel emissions are 278 times greater than the average emissions of a world citizen in a whole year. “That’s another ego trip!” , the organization tweeted yesterday.
How much pollution the short space trips cause is hard to say. But according to Professor of Astronomy Vincent Icke, Greenpeace‘s estimate is quite reasonable. According to him, it is undoubtedly certain that space travel is harmful to the environment. “We’re injecting outright mess into the atmosphere,” says Icke.
“The more missiles, the more emits”
Even though space trips don‘t last long — in the case of Bezos even a few minutes — according to astronomer Lucas Ellerbroek, there is a lot of emissions: “You have to achieve a much higher speed than a plane. Every rocket you launch adds pollution.” According to a scientist at University College London, it is about 200 to 300 tons of CO2 per launch.
Although Blue Origin’s rocket engine runs on hydrogen and liquid oxygen, emitting water vapour in particular. But no matter how clean that sounds, its production is associated with a lot of CO2 emissions.
“The more missiles will enter the air, the more emissions will be,” says Ellerbroek. “And that in the time we‘re hammering on the importance of electric driving and flying less.” There is no view of a clean alternative. “Parties invest too little in that.”
This also applies to pollution in the space itself. According to Ellerbroek, no rules exist for pollution in space and those responsible for cleaning it up. “It’s a place to stay. Musk‘s SpaceX company launches tens of thousands of satellites for the Starlink constellation, without sufficient accountability for those who clean up the mess.”
“Scientific Success Abused for Advertising”
And then there’s the scientific aspect. Because what do billionaires‘ übershort trips deliver in knowledge? Professor Icke briefly says: “Nothing. It’s better to shoot 80 kilos of instruments into space than 80 kilos of human.”
Icke strongly supports space missions that involve research. “People like André Kuipers have work to do up there. But if you go 100 kilometers above the Earth‘s surface with a piss bow, it won’t be,” says the professor. “There‘s nothing you do up there that we can’t investigate better on Earth. For us scientists, it is sad that science‘s enormous successes are being misused for this kind of advertising.”
“Frivolity at a time when bad things happen”
Yet astronomer Ellerbroek understands why space travel now seems so popular with the people who can afford it. “Space travel is futuristic and that’s cool. It‘s a frivolity at a time when bad things happen, it’s a form of escapism.”
Gravity researcher Jack van Loon of the VU Amsterdam also says space has an enormous appeal. He therefore understands why people are counting high sums for space travel.
But at the same time, according to him, an important aspect is overlooked: health. “It‘s not a problem for short trips, but if we go to Mars in the future, as Elon Musk wants, the consequences of being weightless will be problematic.” Those who are weightless for a long time may experience nausea, headache and descaling of bones, for example.
Van Loon: “You’re also faced with a container of cosmic radiation.” That‘s because you leave the Earth’s magnetosphere as soon as you leave space.in goes. “The Earth has a magnetic shell around it. That shield prevents dangerous radiation on Earth,” Van Loon explains.
Professor Icke calls space tourism “a bad idea” all in all. “I understand that there is commerce in it, it‘s fascinating to see the Earth at a distance,” he says. “But what’s happening later is that people put a big bag of money, blow 100 kilometers into the air and fall down again. Prefer that money to invest in things Earth needs.”