How Green is Space Tourism?

Ecologist magazine has an interesting look into Richard Branson’s claims about the eco-friendly nature of Virgin Galactic’s space tourism program:

Britain’s own space buccaneer, Sir Richard Branson, promotes space tourism as a means to save the planet….At the press launch, Branson boasted of the ‘transforming effect’ a space flight will have on ‘thousands who’ll travel with us’: ‘Seeing the planet from out there, surrounded by the incredibly thin protective layer of atmosphere, helps one to wake up to the fragility of the small portion of the planet’s mass that we inhabit and to the importance of protecting our Earth’.

Virgin Galactic has calculated the carbon emissions for a space flight as being ‘approximately 60 per cent of a per passenger return commercial London-New York flight’. This equates to 1.5 tonnes of CO².

Tricorona Climate Partner, a major player in the international carbon market, says Virgin Galactic was ‘reluctant’ to make data available for it to verify the figures. Managing director Per Egstam says, with some understatement, that 1.5 tonnes ‘seems quite low for taking someone into space’.

But Branson is adamant: Virgin Galactic will be a force for good for the environment. A reusable spacecraft and unpowered re-entry and landing are two ‘environmental credentials’ listed. And in September the company announced that the spacecraft would be used to facilitate research into climate change by carrying research instruments for the US government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

There are a number of interesting things in here. First, I think it’s good that Virgin Galactic’s vehicles will be carrying climate monitoring instruments into an area of the atmosphere that needs much more study. That’s going to be valuable.

Branson’s recital of the Overview Effect is correct. Almost everyone who has been in space has commented upon it. The key question is whether this experience spurs any real change on Earth. Does it inspire any concrete action? And how quickly? I think the record is rather mixed thus far from our current roster of astronauts and spaceflight participants.

We’re facing dire environmental issues right now. And we know how to address them. There hasn’t been enough political will to do so. Maybe this will help. But, if we have to wait until Virgin Galactic starts flying passengers (whenever that will be), for the millionauts to get religion, for them to then do something, and for those changes to filter through society and the world’s political systems…That’s going to take a lot of time. And time is something that may be in very short supply.

Virgin Galactic flights would almost by their very nature have a smaller carbon footprint than a trans-Atlantic trip on a 747. Both SpaceShipTwo and its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft are lightweight vehicles designed to reach high altitudes where atmospheric drag is lower. They’re not battling trans-oceanic headwinds. They both return to the same airport. They also carry a very small number of crew members and passengers. They are not loaded up with baggage, cargo, in-flight entertainment systems, meals and drinks, toilets, and Sky Mall catalogs.

And, oh yes, as the article mentioned, SpaceShipOne becomes an unpowered glider once its fuel is exhausted. That means it has to land on the runway on its first and only attempt; there is no go-around capability. That is a safety issue that you don’t have with a 747.

That Virgin Galactic is reluctant to release data on its environmental claims is interesting. It could be concern about releasing trade secrets. Or maybe the data are not all that sound. Hard to say.

In any event, the whole question of how green is space tourism is a bit of a sideshow to the actual environmental problems the planet faces. We’re discussing whether an industry not yet born will be a major contributor to a problem that is attributable to many other sources that we can do something about now. I don’t think people will spend a lot of time debating the matter – at least until suborbital tourism is real.