Destroying the World in Order to Save It

earthrise

A popular theory being advanced by Richard Branson and other space enthusiasts is that the main way to save the planet is to get more people off it. As thousands of people view the Earth from space, they will realize how fragile the planet is and want to protect it. A new consciousness will take hold, transforming our approach to the environment. We also would be able to move polluting industries off the Earth.

However, what if by leaving the Earth, they end up damaging it?

That is the intriguing question raised by Leonard David’s article in Space.com, “Space Littering Can Impact Earth’s Atmosphere.” The story looks at the impacts that spacecraft, rockets and space debris have on the upper atmosphere, including the fragile ozone layer.

David talks with a number of experts, who have the following observations:

  • It doesn’t appear to be a serious problem at the moment;
  • However, we don’t know for sure because of a lack of data;
  • Things could get bad if there is a surge in space travel;
  • Space companies need to be smart about how they design future rockets and spacecraft;
  • A lot more research is needed into the subject.

Branson and Virgin Galactic have been touting their space tourism vehicle as being environmentally friendly, and they say they are making efforts to reduce emissions. The company also plans to fly instruments for NOAA to study the upper atmosphere.

We’ll have to see how Virgin Galactic’s claims stack up once they start operating regular flights. And it remains to be seen how environmentally benign other suborbital and orbital launch systems are once they begin flying.

But, what happens if large-scale suborbital and orbital space travel takes off, but scientists discover that it is causing significant damage? I imagine the resulting debate would go something like this:

Data Deadlock. S0me scientists would sound the alarm while others might dismiss the findings as inconclusive. Industry would likely side with the latter, calling for more study. Governments could side with industry and fund more research, at least in the near term.

Regulatory Regolith. Any efforts at regulation would probably be fought tooth and nail. Industry and their allies that any regulation would be burdensome to the companies and their clients, strangling an infant industry in its crib. Voluntary standards will be the battle cry.

Not in My Backyard: Companies will also argue that frequent and cheap space travel will allow us to move polluting industries out of your backyard and into space.  As a result, any pollution in the short-term will be offset by long-term savings. There will be serious debates about how practical the plan is, how fast it could happen, and whether the trade-offs are worth it.

The Old Move the Franchise Trick. Whenever the owner of a major league sports franchise in the United States doesn’t like the deal he has with the city, he usually threatens relocation. Usually, the city caves in the demands; other times, the franchise gets someone else to build them a brand new stadium.

Any country that would try to regulate emissions would face the risk of losing business. Relocating a suborbital tourism operation would be relatively easy. Orbital systems are a bit more complicated, but there are no shortage of spaceports around the world competing for business.

The International Way. The solution would be an international regulatory regime, such as the one that has dealt with CFC emissions and the ozone layer. However, that type of negotiation could take an awful long time, allowing companies to operate as they wished for many years.

We’ll have to see how this all pans out. There could be very little to worry about here. Or it could be another example of the law of unintended consequences.