Jeff Bezos’s historic space flight Tuesday used relatively clean fuel, but his push among billionaires to compete with more and more suborbital missions has many asking what the impact on climate change might be.
Bezos, the founder of space explorer Blue Origin, funded in part from his take after creating retail disruptor Amazon.com Inc.
flew with his brother, an 18-year-old auction winner from the Netherlands and 82-year-old female aviation pioneer Wally Funk, making them the youngest and oldest to ever leave the planet.
Their New Shepard craft crossed briefly above the Kármán Line, the internationally recognized boundary of space more than 62 miles above Earth, before descending and re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere. Virgin Galactic owner Richard Branson took a ride in his own craft earlier this month to an altitude 50 miles over Earth.
The New Shepard booster rocket burned a mix of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. Its exhaust was a trail of water vapor with no carbon emissions, which are among the biggest contributing factors in global warming. It is recycled for additional use.
Uses of hydrogen as a still expensive but reemerging fuel option, especially for commercial fleets, have gained traction.
Bezos has been a major investor in technology meant to help slow the effects of global warming and improve transportation sources using renewable energy, at the same time taking heat for the impact his quick-delivery online behemoth has made on resource use and communities.
And while Branson clearly has space tourism in mind — he projects building several global spaceports, enabling 400 flights to space a year on multiple models of his spacecraft — Bezos has tried to play up the exploration factor, including the possibility that space travel could open up new energy sources.
“In order to preserve Earth, Blue Origin believes that humanity will need to expand, explore, find new energy and material resources, and move industries that stress Earth into space,” a declaration on its site says. “Blue is working on this today by developing partially and fully reusable launch vehicles that are safe, low cost and serve the needs of all civil, commercial and defense customers.”
Bezos, speaking directly after Tuesday’s flight to MSNBC, said his new view of Earth has only elevated his desire to work to counter climate change.
“You can’t imagine how thin the atmosphere is when you see it from space,” he said.
“We live in it … it feels so big, this atmosphere is huge we can disregard it and treat it poorly. See how tiny it is and fragile it is.
“Take all heavy industry move it into space. Keep Earth this beautiful gem of a planet that it is,” he said.
After decades of waning public interest, excitement about space has been reignited over the past few years with technological innovation, as well as the marketing savvy of Bezos, Branson and Elon Musk’s
The powerful Falcon 9 rockets from SpaceX boost satellites and humans into a steady orbit around the Earth. SpaceX is expected to take a civilian crew raising money for charity into orbit later this year. After Tuesday’s flight Blue Origin has two more launches with passengers lined up for this year and pent up demand, its sales director told the Settle Times.
One report estimates that the global suborbital transportation and space tourism market will reach $2.58 billion in 2031, growing 17.15% each year of the next decade. Venture capital money is pouring into space startups, with almost $38 billion going to space infrastructure companies in the past decade, according to the latest data from Space Capital, a firm that promotes investment in the industry. Bezos, who sold $6.6 billion of Amazon stock in May, has said he is spending $1 billion a year on Blue Origin.
All tourism creates CO2 emissions. An economy-class flight from New York City to London emits the equivalent to 11% of an individual’s average annual carbon emissions.
And space demand remains tiny by comparison. For all of 2020, for instance, there were 114 attempted orbital launches in the world, according to NASA. That compares with the airline industry’s more than 100,000 flights each day on average, and COVID-19 impacted that number.
But “the scale of the difference between space tourism and more mundane approaches to travel is astonishing,” says Steve Banker, vice president of supply chain services at ARC Advisory Group, writing in a commentary.
A SpaceX flight, for instance, generates the annual carbon footprint of 278 average world citizens.
Carbon emissions from rockets are small compared with the aircraft industry. But now, space travel emissions are increasing at nearly 5.6% a year, Eloise Marais, an associate professor of physical geography at University College London, writes. Marais has been running a simulation for a decade.
Marais argues that even water vapor injected into the upper atmosphere can have warming impacts. Read more on her research.
And, during launch, rockets can emit between four and ten times more nitrogen oxides than Drax, the largest thermal power plant in the U.K., over the same period. CO₂ emissions for the four or so tourists on a space flight will be between 50 and 100 times more than the one to three metric tons per passenger on a long-haul flight, she argues.
A report from 2019 issued by the Center for Space Policy and Strategy likened the space emissions problem to that of space junk, or the out-of-commission satellites and other equipment left in space after use.
“Today, launch vehicle emissions present a distinctive echo of the space debris problem. Rocket engine exhaust emitted into the stratosphere during ascent to orbit adversely impacts the global atmosphere,” they wrote.
Other observers argue that the larger cost to Earth comes not with a debate over fuels and emissions from space tourism, but with resources spent on these dreams over devastation on the ground.
“Is anyone else alarmed that billionaires are having their own private space race while record-breaking heatwaves are sparking a ‘fire-breathing dragon of clouds’ and cooking sea creatures to death in their shells?” Robert Reich, a former Labor Secretary tweeted last week.
Nicole Lyn Pence contributed to this article.