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Space tourism: between technological progress and accelerating climate change

Updated: Sep 20, 2021

Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, decided to embark on his own space race, along with three other people taking off in Blue Origin's New Shepard spacecraft, reaching space in a journey that lasted just 11 minutes.

While Bezos describes the experience as "the best day of his life", the rest of the population wonders, at what cost it was obtained?

Bezos durante su intervención en el Tercer Simposio Espacial en Colorado Springs, Colorado, en 2017.
Via New York Times

What other projects have been carried out

Bezos has not been the only one interested in acquiring space experiences. Billionaire and Virgin Group owner Richard Branson claimed that this trip was the beginning of the exploration of space tourism. Subsequently, it is hoped that ordinary tickets can be sold to get more people into space.

Yesterday, September 15, 2021, a Space X (Elon Musk) rocket took off, which has become the first space trip without astronauts on board. It is the first space mission composed entirely of civilians, which successfully lifted off Wednesday from Cape Canaveral to orbit the Earth for three days.

The consequences of space tourism for the Earth

Although on the side of the billionaires, space tourism is seen as a business opportunity, and a technological breakthrough, for the Earth the consequences are very serious.

What is the ecological footprint of space tourism? It is estimated that, with the launch of a spacecraft, liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen propellants are expelled into the air, which are converted into greenhouse gases when they are burned. After a successful liftoff, these chemicals are left floating in the atmosphere. But as the rocket boosts, other layers are affected, so the stratosphere and mesosphere receive all the fuel burned and converted into gas.

Space tourism does not seem to be considering the negative impact it is having on the ozone layer, which protects the earth from the sun's UV rays.

Rockets have different orbits around our planet as their destination, while today's tourist flights are suborbital flights. These do not enter into orbit, but ascend to 80 and 100 km in altitude to experience zero gravity for a few minutes and then fall back to Earth. A suborbital flight requires less energy than those that aim to enter orbit, so its cost is more affordable and its ecological footprint smaller.

The average number of rockets launched into space per year is 100, with a smaller carbon footprint than the 100,000 planes that fly every day. The space sector is experiencing strong growth and therefore its environmental impact could become very relevant.

Climate change and the future of space turism

With the announcement that Virgin Galactic will sell 400 space tourism trips per year, alarm bells have been ringing. Global warming is a reality that affects millions of populations across the earth, but it seems not to be enough to raise awareness about the damage caused.

Although the real impact of space tourism is not yet known, it is estimated that the ozone layer will be affected. The ozone layer would no longer fulfill its role of absorbing the sun's rays, and the earth would suffer drastic changes. Likewise, global warming would be accelerated by soot and CO2 particles, which are released indiscriminately into the atmosphere when a space tourism rocket is launched.

An unfinished business

The billionaires who have started with the space tourism tests have assured on the ground that the companies over which they hold the reins have a commitment to environmental care and conservation.

It is questionable whether the production models they develop are supposedly environmentally sound, when their space subsidiaries are discarding all the waste caused by launching rockets.

In Bezos' own statements,

"space can be a way out and an answer to global warming, with the future in mind".

However, it is worth asking why in the present, it seems that there is no will to preserve and avoid the emission of millions of greenhouse gases. The care of the planet is now, the earth is exhausting all its resources, and space tourism is not the solution.

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