A SpaceX Launch Puts Out as Much CO2 as Flying 341 People Across the Atlantic

SpaceX rocket launching in a cloud of smoke and steam

SpaceX / Getty Images

Is Spaceflight-shaming the next big thing after flight-shaming? Or do we have bigger things to worry about?

Watching SpaceX nail the landing of two Falcon rockets is up there with watching a Saturn 5 launch and the first moon landing as a memorable image. Elon Musk has done such marvellous things here. And of course, as a TreeHugger, I love the idea of the 3Rs: Recover, Refill, Reuse.

But as companies like Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin and SpaceX gear up for tourism, Jacob of Champion Traveler reminds me of the carbon footprint of rocket launches.

SpaceX Carbon Footprint

The Falcon 9 rocket runs on fossil fuels, namely Rocket Propellant 1 or RP-1, which is highly refined kerosene.

Each launch burns 29,600 gallons or 112,184 Kilograms, with each Kg of fuel releasing 3 Kg of CO2, so each launch releases 336,552 Kg of CO2.

A flight from London to New York City has a carbon footprint of 986 Kg, so a SpaceX launch is the equivalent of flying 341 people across the Atlantic (Jacob calculated 395). It sounds terrible, until you realize that that is about the number of people that fit into one 777-300, which can carry 45,220 gallons of fuel. So overall, one transatlantic flight of a 777 is considerably worse than a flight of the Falcon, and they do this hundreds of times a day.

Tourists now can go to the International Space Station on Russian rockets, and Elon Musk says "it'd be pretty cool if people went to the space station on an American vehicle" – his, as well.

Doing the Carbon Math

This is where the math gets dicey. If you attribute a quarter of the fuel to passengers on the 4-person Crew Dragon capsule, that's 28,046 kg of kerosene, which releases 84,138 kg of CO2, or 85 times as much CO2 per person as a flight across the Atlantic. However, the people who can afford these flights will all be billionaires, and when they travel on their private jets pump out 8 times as much CO2 per person, and use just as much fuel on the round trip. (The Crew Dragon has gravity for the return.) So a trip to the ISS puts out only 5 times as much CO2 as a round trip to London on a Bombardier Global 6000. They do that a lot; it is a lot more important to worry about the impact of these stupid private jets than it is to worry about rockets.

All of this is a circular way of concluding that there are lots of things to worry about when it comes to CO2 emissions, but a couple of rich people riding rockets is probably not one of them.

As Katherine Martinko has questioned in her post Is shaming people for flying effective? there is some pushback about Flygskam or flight-shaming. I suspect spaceflight shaming will be a thing, but we have bigger issues to worry about.