Suborbital spaceflight and the emissions myth

Saturday’s issue of the Nashua (N.H.) Telegraph has an editorial raising questions about the environmental impact of suborbital spaceflight. The article is based on a recent AP article about the growth of the suborbital space tourism field, specifically mentioning the recent investment in XCOR Aerospace. (You can tell that the editorial is not going to be that positive when it refers to Boston Harbor Angels, the group of angel investors that made the investment into XCOR, as “fat cats with money to spare”.)

The Telegraph editorial’s key section is:

While these ventures have a futuristic outlook, what no one questions is whether the planet, already inundated with harmful emissions, needs yet more of them from space vehicles that serve no other purpose that to give rides for people with money to burn for a brief personal adventure.

Planes provide needed transportation and scientific rockets hopefully will benefit humankind. But do we really need to unload more fuel emissions into the skies with tourist rockets while we haven’t yet brought the Earth’s present overload of toxic gases under control? Just wondering.

This is not the first time this issue has come up; Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic tried to head this issue off at the pass last year at the SpaceShipTwo cabin mockup unveiling in New York by claiming that each SpaceShipTwo flight would have one ten-thousandth the environmental impact of a space shuttle launch, or about the same carbon dioxide emission as a single Virgin Atlantic business-class passenger on a New York-to-London flight. Other suborbital vehicles under development will probably have environmental impacts of roughly the same order as SS2, given the relatively short duration of the powered portion of their flights (a few minutes of rocket power, and in some cases additional time under jet power.)

Even in the most robust market scenarios the number of flights will only be in the hundreds or low thousands per year for years to come, which means that the total environmental impact of suborbital spaceflight will be an almost infinitesimal fraction of the overall commercial aviation industry. Couldn’t the Telegraph’s editors reached that same conclusion with just a modest amount of research? Just wondering.

7 comments to Suborbital spaceflight and the emissions myth

  • It might also be worth noting that both Musk, and Branson have significant investments into clean energy sectors. They, amoung other “fat cats with money to spare” are in the vanguard of the fight to develop a better, cleaner, renewable and sustainable energy plan – for the planet.

    So, I am curious what the writer/editor is doing to help? Is he even recycling? Branson and Musk have put their money where their vision is. I suspect that the good that these 2 do, will more than offset their minor emissions. I am ‘just wondering’ how many trees the writer/editor has planted, to offset the paper and energy consumed by his newspapers need for trees, gas to deliver the finished product or even the energy it took to run the presses. I doubt he is any position to bitch.

    MOST people i know in the ‘space-biz’ have a fundamental concern over the future of the planet – that is why they got involved with space in the first place.

    take care. mjl

  • Peter Shearer

    I agree with you Michael!!! Does this journalist drive an electric car to help off-set harmful emissions?

    “…scientific rockets hopefully will benefit humankind.” Yes, but isn’t the benefit of rockets the actual human spaceflight? Isn’t the benefit going to be sending humans into space so we can see it, experience it and colonize it?

    Just Wondering!

  • Ed

    The Envirofacists strike again!

  • Ed

    “Couldn’t the Telegraph’s editors reached that same conclusion with just a modest amount of research? Just wondering.”

    The problem with these guys is that, they don’t do the research…they just asume the worst and cry foul.

  • Suborbital spaceflight and the emissions myth…

    Space tourism companies say their vehicles will have a negligible impact on the environment….

  • [...] of course. The report also deals with the potential environmental impact of space tourism (previously discussed here), offering the views of both those who think emissions from suborbital spacecraft is a major [...]

  • [...] perceived deleterious effects on the environment by suborbital spaceflights have been brought up; an editorial from a New Hampshire newspaper made similar statements in July. Der Spiegel makes no attempt to quantify how big an “enormous” carbon footprint is [...]

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