Can Space Tourism Really Be Green?

Image credit: The Guardian
Virgin Galactic President on Space Tourism's "Very Low Impact"
Last week Lloyd reported on Leo Hickman's attack on the Branson space-tourism venture Virgin Galactic. Hickman argued that it was "one of the most extravagant and self-centred uses of a fossil fuel imaginable." Lloyd has also had a good chuckle at the concept of a LEED-certified space port. The folks at Virgin, however, are asking people to not rush to judgment - and are fighting back against the skeptics. In fact, they claim, "getting into space has very low impact." Can this really be true?Virgin Galactic's president, Will Whitehorn, issued a response to Hickman's article in The Guardian, defending space tourism as environmentally responsible:

The company is developing a 21st-century space launch system based on the principles of an entirely carbon composite construction, a unique benign hybrid rocket motor, biofuels where permissible and very high-altitude air launch and firing of the benign rocket rather than launching it from the ground. The air launch negates the need to use dirty carbon-intensive solid chemical fuelled rocket boosters. The result is a very low-energy and low environmental impact approach to getting humans, scientific payload and eventually even small satellites into space.

Experimental test flying is now under way and early experience indicates the system will live up to all Virgin's hopes for it. Many leading environmental scientists such as Professor James Lovelock believe it will be a genuine breakthrough in human and scientific access to space in the future. We are not going to find better ways to get to space unless we can regularise space flight and this system will use space tourism as one means to lower the cost of space access.

So it seems Whitehorn's thesis rests on the idea that we can't get efficient space flight until we get more people into space. But even if Virgin Galactic's efforts led to a 90% decrease in emissions per launch (and I notice no numbers are given here), I suspect they would result in a much, much larger number of launches. I'd much rather leave this one to the professionals, even in their fossil-fuel intensive rockets - than to normalize the idea of jetting into space for a quick break. But that's just me. I've always hated flying anyway.

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