How bad are private space travel for the environment and other important questions answered

For many, the rise of commercial space tourism is one vulgar display of wealth and power. In the midst of several global crises, including climate change and a pandemic, billionaires are spending their money on launching themselves into space for fun. When Amazon founder Jeff Bezos told reporters after his first space tourism trip on Tuesday that Amazon customers and employees had “paid” for his flight, it only reinforced this criticism.

But critics do not deter Bezos and the other superrich. Space tourism is now a reality for the people who can afford it – and it will have consequences for everyone on earth.

Actually, all signs indicate that the market for these tours is already large enough for them to continue. Jeff Bezo’s space company Blue Origin already has two more trips planned later in the year, while Virgin Galactic, the space company founded by billionaire Richard Branson, at least has 600 people which has already paid about $ 250,000 each for future tickets on its space plan.

Now that the commercial space market (literally) is getting off the ground, there are big questions facing future space travelers – and everyone else on the planet. Here are answers to the six biggest.

1. What will people actually be able to see and experience on a space trip?

The biggest benefit of traveling to space is the view. Just past the boundary between space and earth, passengers can get a stunning glimpse of our planet juxtaposed against the vastly unknown space. If a passenger is flying on a Virgin Galactic flight, they will come about 85 km above sea level. Blue Origin riders come a little higher, about 100 km above sea level and past the Kármán line, the internationally recognized boundary between earth and space. Overall, the experience on both flights is quite similar.

The show is meant to be awe-inspiring, and the experience even has its own name: the Overview Effect. “When you look at Earth from a high level, it changes your perspective on things and how interconnected we are and how we waste it here on Earth,” said Wendy Whitman Cobb, a professor at the U.S. Air Force’s School of Advanced Air and Space Studies. told Recode.

Another benefit of these trips is that space tourists will feel a few minutes of microgravity, which is when gravity is felt extremely weak. It will give them the chance to jump around in a spacecraft weightlessly before returning to Earth.

But Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic flights are relatively short – approx. 10 and 90 minutes long, respectively. Other space tourism flights from SpaceX, the space company founded by Elon Musk, will have more to offer. This fall, billionaire Jared Isaacman, who founded the company Shift4 Payments, will lead SpaceX’s first all-civilian flight, The inspiration4, which will spend several days in orbit around the Earth. In the coming years, the company has also planned private missions to the International Space Station as well as a trip around the moon.

These trips are meant to be enjoyed by space geeks who longed to be astronauts. But there is another reason why rich people want to enter space: demonstrate exclusivity and conspicuous consumption. More than a few people can afford a trip to Venice or the Maldives. But how many people are privileged enough to take a trip out into space?

“What better way to show off these days than to post a photo on Instagram from space,” Sridhar Tayur, a Carnegie Mellon business professor, told Recode.

Does commercial space travel have any scientific goals, or is it really just a joy?

Right now flights in space tourism from Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin only have reached suborbital space, which means that flights enter space but do not enter orbit around the Earth. Scientifically, it is not a new frontier. Although these current flights use new technology, suborbital flight with people on board was performed by NASA back in early 1960s, Matthew Hersch, a Harvard technician, told Recode.

Right now, it is not clear that these tours will give scientists greater new insights, but they may provide information that could be used in the future to explore space. In fact, these tours are too marketed as potential opportunities for scientific experiments. For example, the recent Virgin Galactic flight carried plants and tested how they responded microgravity.

These private companies primarily see opportunities in their commercial vehicles that can be reused on a large scale, allowing the same rockets (or in the case of Virgin Galactic, space plans) to go into space again and again, lowering the overall cost of space tourism .

Billionaires and their private space companies also see the development of these rockets as an opportunity to prepare for flights that will do even more and go even further into space. Bezos, for example, has claimed that New Shepard’s suborbital flights will help prepare the company’s future missions, including its New Glenn rocket, which is intended for orbital space.

“The fact is that the architecture and the technology we have chosen are completely exaggerated for a suborbital tourism mission,” Bezos said on Tuesday. briefing after launch. “We have chosen the vertical landing architecture. Why did we do that? Because it scales. ”

In addition to potential scientific advances in the future, suborbital space travel may also create new ways of traveling from one place on earth to another. SpaceX, for example, has announced that long-haul flights could be shortened to only 30 minutes by traveling through space.

3. Is it safe?

Right now, it is not entirely clear how risky space tourism is.

One way that space companies are trying to protect travelers is by requiring training so that the people who take a short stay off Earth are as prepared as possible.

On the flight, people may experience intense altitude and G-forces. “These are sustained G-forces on your body, upward relative to what can be 6 G in one direction – which is six times your body weight in upward for 20 or 30 seconds,” Glenn King, chief operating officer of Nastar Center – the physiological aerospace training center that prepared Richard Branson for his flights, Recode said. “It’s a long time when you have six people or your weight pushing you down.”

There is also the chance that space tourists will be exposed to radiation, although this risk depends on how long you are in space. “It’s a risk, especially more for orbital flights than sub-orbital,” explains Whitman Cobb. “Going up in a plane exposes you to a greater amount of radiation than you would get here on earth.” She also warns that some tourists are likely to prevent the trip.

However, there does not seem to be an age limit for who can travel. The latest Blue Origin flight included both the youngest person to ever travel to space, an 18-year-old Dutch teenager, and the oldest: 82-year-old pilot Wally Funk.

4. How much do tickets cost?

The leaders in commercial space tourism are already claiming that they have a market to support the industry. While Bezos hinted on Tuesday, the price would eventually fall – as eventually happened with the high prices in the burgeoning aviation industry – for now ticket prices are in the low hundreds of thousands, at least for Virgin Galactic. This price point would keep space travel out of reach for most of humanity, but there are enough interested rich people to make space tourism seem economically feasible.

“If you bring it down to $ 250,000, the wait times are [to buy a ticket] will be very long, ”Tayn from Carnegie Mellon told Recode.

5. What impact will commercial space travel have on the environment?

The emissions from a flight to space can be worse than a typical flight because only a few people jump on board one of these flights, so the emissions per. Passages are much higher. This pollution can get much worse if space tourism becomes more popular. Virgin Galactic alone is finally aiming to start 400 of these flights yearly.

“The carbon footprint of launching yourself into space in one of these rockets is incredibly high, almost 100 times higher than if you took a long-haul flight,” Eloise Marais, a professor of physical geography at University College London, told Recode. “It’s incredibly problematic if we want to be environmentally conscious and consider our CO2 footprint.”

The impact of these flights on the environment will vary depending on factors such as the fuel they use, the energy required to produce the fuel and where they are headed – and all these factors make it difficult to model their environmental impact. For example, Jeff Bezos has argued that the liquid hydrogen and oxygen fuel used by Blue Origin are less harmful to the environment than the other space competitors (technically, his aircraft did not release carbon dioxide), but experts told Recode that it still could have been significant environmental effects.

There are other risks we need as well keep studying, including the release of sweet which could damage the stratosphere and ozone. ONE examination from 2010 found that soot released by 1,000 spaceflights could heat Antarctica by nearly 1 degree Celsius. “There are some risks that are unknown,” said Paul Peeters, a Professor of Sustainability in Tourism at Breda University of Applied Sciences, told Recode. “We should do a lot more work to assess these risks and make sure they do not occur or to remedy them in some way – before you start this space business.” All in all, he believes the environmental costs are reason enough not to take such a trip.

6. Who regulates commercial space travel?

Right now, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has generally been that given the job of supervision of the commercial space industry. But regulation of space is still relatively poor.

One of the biggest concerns is launching licenses and making sure that spaceflights do not end up hitting all the other flying vehicles that humans shoot into the sky, like planes and drones. Only in June, a SpaceX flight was stopped after a helicopter flew into the launch zone.

There is a lot still to be worked out, especially as there are several of these launches. On Thursday, the Senate hosted a hearing with leaders of the commercial space industry focusing on overseeing growing volume of civil space travel.

At the same time, the FAA also oversees an increasing number of space ports – essentially aerospace airports – and make sure there is enough space for them to safely set up their launches.

But there are other areas where the government could step in. “I think the cybersecurity aspect will also play a very important role so that people are not hacked,” Tayur said. The FAA told Recode that the agency has participated in the development of national principles for space cybersecurity, but Congress has not given it a specific role in looking at cybersecurity in space.

At some point, the government may also step in to regulate the environmental impact of these flights, but that is not something that the FAA currently has jurisdiction over.

Meanwhile, no government agency is currently assessing these companies when it comes to the safety of the human passengers on board. An FAA official confirmed with Recode that while the agency allocates licenses to companies to carry people to space, they do not actually confirm that these trips are safe. It’s jurisdiction Congress will not grant the agency until 2023.

There does not seem to be an abundance of travel insurance for space. “Passengers basically sign that they are waiving all their rights,” Whitman Cobb said. “You recognize that risk and do it yourself right now.”

So reasonable warning, if you decide to scale back hundreds of thousands of dollars for a space joyride: You’ll probably have to accept all responsibility, you get hurt.

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