Pros and cons

Prince William and the billionaire space race’s climate problem

Carbon emissions of four space tourists ‘up to 100 times more’ than passenger on long-haul flight

Prince William has suggested that tech billionaires should focus on saving Earth from the impact of climate change rather than directing their resources into space tourism.

Speaking to the BBC’s Newscast podcast, the Duke of Cambridge told presenter Adam Fleming that “we need some of the world’s greatest brains and minds fixed on trying to repair this planet, not trying to find the next place to go and live”. 

He added that it is “crucial” to be focusing on this planet “rather than giving up and heading out into space to try and think of solutions for the future”.

Space tourism certainly comes at an eye-watering cost. Jeff Bezos – the world’s richest man – has funded his space company, Blue Origin, with at least $5.5bn of his own money, according to Fortune magazine. This is significantly more than the GDP of several countries including the Maldives, an archipelago that could disappear by the end of the century if the world does not take quick action on climate change.

It is also an extremely carbon-intensive activity. The carbon dioxide emissions of roughly four tourists on a space flight could be “up to 100 times more than the emissions per passenger of a long-haul flight”, according to an estimate by Dr Eloise Marais of University College London.

Another study by researchers at UNSW (University of New South Wales), Australia, found that space travel releases “alumina particles, black carbon and even water vapour” into the stratosphere, which could have dangerous repercussions for the environment, reported Science Focus.

And hybrid rocket engines, which were used on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo and “run on both solid and liquid fuel”, are particularly destructive for the planet as they release “far more black carbon than kerosene fuel”.

“If hybrid rockets, which are assumed to be relatively cheap to operate, become popular, a climate disaster is looming,” Paul Peeters, sustainable transport and tourism professor at Breda University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands, told Science Focus.

When space tourism inevitably becomes more common, these emissions will become a far greater problem; Virgin Galactic alone eventually aims to launch 400 space flights annually, according to Vox.

But there is an argument that putting resources into space tourism could lead to discoveries that would benefit us all. Thanks to the arrival of inhabitable space stations that “act as orbital laboratories”, we’ve been able to understand so much more about human physiology, wrote space experts Nick Caplan, Andrew Winnard and Kirsty Lindsay for The Conversation

Research studies completed on the International Space Station since the year 2000 have led to discoveries from “enhanced protein crystal growth for drug development” to understanding the effects of “long duration exposure to microgravity on the human body”. “Space travel-related research has probably already had a more substantial positive impact on your life than you realise,” the authors added. 

Seeing Earth from suborbital space may also help remind space tourists of the fragility of our planet and the need to protect it – which is what happened to Bezos after he completed his flight in July. “When you look at the planet, there are no borders,” he said in an NBC News interview. “It’s one planet, and we share it and it’s fragile.”

The entrepreneur then stressed the need for reusable rockets and even suggested that “all heavy industry, all polluting industry” could be moved to space in order to preserve what he described as “this beautiful gem of a planet”. Three weeks ago, he committed to spending $1bn in conservation in places like the Congo Basin, the Andes and tropical parts of the Pacific Ocean, as part of his $10bn Bezos Earth Fund

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