Will Whitehorn Responds to Space Tourism Environmental Questions


Artists conception of WhiteKnightTwo and the SpaceShipTwo space tourism vehicle. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
Artists conception of WhiteKnightTwo and the SpaceShipTwo space tourism vehicle. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Following a column last week in The Guardian that challenged Virgin Galactic to be more specific about its environmental claims for SpaceShipTwo, company CEO Will Whitehorn has responded with a piece that appears to be even more general:

Let’s put science ahead of emotion in discussing Virgin Galactic. The company is developing a 21st-century space launch system based on the principles of an entirely carbon composite construction, a unique benign hybrid rocket motor, biofuels where permissible and very high-altitude air launch and firing of the benign rocket rather than launching it from the ground.

The air launch negates the need to use dirty carbon-intensive solid chemical fuelled rocket boosters. The result is a very low-energy and low environmental impact approach to getting humans, scientific payload and eventually even small satellites into space.

You can read the rest of Whitehorn’s piece here.

Whitehorn’s response sidesteps the main question that Leo Hickman raised in his original piece: How exactly did Virgin calculate that “CO2 emissions per passenger on a spaceflight will be equivalent to approximately 60% of a per passenger return commercial London/New York flight”? More fundamentally, how valid is the apples-to-walnuts comparison between a two-hour, 70-mile high suborbital trip by 8 people and a 7,000 mile Trans-Atlantic flight aboard a fully-loaded 747?

The comparison and the entire line of argument is strange. If you compared the monorail at Walt Disney World to a round-trip train trip from Orlando to New York, the monorail is probably going to come out more eco-friendly. But, so what? The monorail doesn’t really go anywhere and it carries very little. And it can’t really replace an Amtrak train.