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Is space tourism good for the planet?

We explore the growing world of commercial space travel and consider whether the benefits outweigh the drawbacks of making space a tourist destination.

Space tourist wearing an astronaut suit wanders through shuttle

By Rhiannon Wardle

While space tourism isn’t brand new, the race to progress commercial space travel has moved along vastly in the past year. With NASA – once the centre of the space industry – taking its time to bring commercial space flight into the realm of possibility, the doors have opened up for wealthy individuals to try their hand at space travel.

Space tourism is not without criticism, despite being an exciting idea in theory. Today, we’ll explore the advantages and disadvantages of space tourism, raise questions about the billionaire space race, and think about whether space tourism is the beginning of a new future or an environmental catastrophe. 

What is space tourism?

You may be wondering, what exactly is space tourism, as opposed to regular space travel? The main difference is, space tourism is human space travel for recreational or leisure purposes. So the fundamental purpose is for human pleasure, as all tourism is. We can divide space tourism into orbital, suborbital and lunar space tourism.

While orbital space tourism involves extremely high speeds (17,400 mph), as it allows a rocket to orbit around Earth, suborbital flights are a lot slower (though still 3,700mph) and tend to fly directly up into space and then back down again. Suborbital flights are what space tourism companies are offering more commonly. Lunar space tourism involves trips to the moon.

While there are some broader definitions of space tourism, such as watching rocket launches or stargazing, we’ll be focusing on commercial space travel in this article, as it has the most far-reaching consequences.

The world’s first tourist in space

So when exactly did space tourism begin? On April 30th, 2001, US millionaire Dennis Tito travelled to the International Space Station (ISS) on a Russian Soyuz rocket. He spent 20 million dollars to bring his dream to light, which mirrors the current state of space tourism – the very richest people in the world are at the forefront. 

Between 2001 and 2009, Russian Soyuz rockets transported seven more space tourists to the International Space Station as part of Space Adventures, with each ticket costing a similar 20-25 million US dollars. However, in 2010, Russia halted orbital space tourism due to an increasing number of ISS members needing seats on the spacecraft. This was the last we saw of space tourism until 2021.

Does commercial space travel exist today?

The short answer to this question is yes. However, currently, commercial space travel is extremely exclusive, and this shows no signs of changing in the near future. July 2021 was a pioneering month, with both Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin successfully launching suborbital spaceflights with tourist passengers from their spaceports.

Below, we’ll go into more detail about the three companies hoping to make waves with commercial space travel in the next few years. Eventually, each of these companies wants to provide regular space travel opportunities to private paying customers. 

Virgin Galactic

Created by Virgin’s Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic was founded in 2004. On July 11th 2021, Branson flew up to space with a crew of 2 pilots and 3 other passengers, becoming the first space tourist in over 10 years. It was a 90-minute suborbital flight at an altitude of 85km. 

Their website is simple with an aspirational message. If you click on the heading “Why we go”, you see a quote from Branson: “I really hope that there will be millions of kids all over the world who will be captivated and inspired about the possibility of them going to space one day.”

The website also outlines that Virgin Galactic’s mission is to “open space to everybody” and says, “until now, ordinary citizens haven’t had the opportunity to experience space for themselves”. However, the question remains – do billionaires count as ordinary citizens when there are less than 3,000 of them in the entire world?

Blue Origin

The second space company interested in commercial space travel is Blue Origin, founded by Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos. Just nine days after the Virgin Galactic flight, Blue Origin’s New Shepherd Rocket took Bezos and three other passengers to space on July 20th 2021. The suborbital flight reached an altitude of 107km, higher than Branson’s flight, but the whole trip only lasted a mere 11 minutes.

The space flight reached two new world records by having the oldest and youngest humans to have ever been to space onboard. One of them, an 18-year-old student, was Blue Origin’s first paying customer, though the price of a ticket has not been revealed.

The website is similar in some ways to Virgin Galactic’s, emphasising a better future for our children and the possibility of millions of people in space. However, there is slightly more focus on Earth preservation, with Blue Origin mentioning the need to find new energy and material resources outside of Earth. There is also a focus on the reusable nature of launch vehicles as an attempt to improve cost and sustainability.

Space X

Space X, short for Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, is a company created by Elon Musk, founder of Tesla. Out of the three companies, it could appear to some people that Musk is somewhat behind compared to Branson and Bezos since he has not personally travelled to space. 

However, it’s worth noting that Space X is more focused on longer orbital flights, which are more difficult to carry out. In fact, Space X launched the first-ever orbital flight crewed entirely by tourists from the Kennedy Space Centre on September 15th 2021. 

While one crew member, Jared Isaacman, was a billionaire and funded the trip himself, the other crew members were ordinary citizens, including a community college professor and a physician assistant. To put money matters into perspective, the flight probably cost Isaacman a minimum of 200 million US dollars. However, the mission raised $210 million for St Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in the process.

The website of Space X is definitely more detailed and contains more ambitious plans for the future of space travel. While they discuss private space travel for the purpose of leisure: “Fly over your hometown, famous landmarks and other places meaningful to you”, they also talk about Earth-to-Earth transportation via space, the habitability of the moon, and plans to create a human colony on Mars

Advantages of space tourism

Now you have a better understanding of space tourism in today’s climate, let’s delve deeper into the good and bad consequences. We’ll start off with the advantages of space tourism and discuss why it’s such an exciting prospect for so many.

A new perspective on the world

Right now, the biggest draw for commercial space passengers is the awe-inspiring experience, a new perspective of Earth, and the most beautiful view humans have ever seen. Most people grow up believing that they will never go to space, and the fact that going can become a reality for some is a huge achievement.

The experience of observing the Earth from space has a name: the Overview Effect. Essentially, this is a cognitive change of consciousness, where astronauts experience a new sense of obligation and responsibility to protect planet Earth. If this truly means that everyone who visits space will want to protect the planet, then perhaps space tourism could be beneficial for human compassion.

Another big perk of space travel for passengers is the experience of microgravity, where they will be able to feel weightless on the spacecraft for a few minutes. This may not change their perspective on Earth, but it’ll certainly give a feeling of euphoria.

Scientific research

There are a few scientific benefits of space tourism, though the most recent flights were perhaps not long enough to offer too much insight. When, in the future, we see longer space flights, we’ll have the opportunity to study long-term physiological changes in humans as a result of being in space. 

There are also chances to carry out small-scale experiments on these touristic flights. For example, on the recent Virgin Galactic flight, plants were taken on board to see how they would react to microgravity. 

However, the truth is, space tourism has a different goal from other kinds of space travel. There’s no doubt that important scientific research could be carried out by scientists and astronauts at the International Space Station, the moon, or even on another planet – but will new scientific frontiers really be reached as a result of tourism?

A potential future on a moon or Mars colony

One of the end goals of space tourism is to prepare for the creation of a colony on the moon or Mars for research purposes or even as a kind of backup plan for if Earth goes up in flames. While a lot of this research and preparation will need to be done by scientists and astronauts, it’s true that for this to happen, more ordinary people will need to be able to visit space. In this way, space tourism could be a great starting point.

To learn more about a potential future living on Mars or an icy moon, you can check out our Life on Mars, Earth and Beyond with Dr Louisa Preston ExpertTrack. An astrobiologist and UK Space Agency Aurora Research Fellow, Dr Preston will help you explore the big questions about life, the universe, and the future of humankind.

Disadvantages of space tourism

Of course, it’s not all exciting news. There are some pretty huge disadvantages of space tourism that we’re going to look at in more detail. It can be easy to ignore the negatives when we’re talking about something that’s as pioneering and unique as space travel, but it’s essential that we have a well-rounded conversation about it.

Space tourism cost and inaccessibility

We’ve already mentioned how wildly expensive tickets are for spacecraft passengers. At the moment, tickets cost between $200,000-$250,000 for Virgin Galactic flights, and while ticket prices haven’t been released by Blue Origin or Space X, we have some indications.

Blue Origin sold one seat on their spaceflight for $28 million as part of a charity auction, demonstrating that the super-wealthy have exclusive access to the opportunity of being a pioneer. Regarding Space X, an early 2022 mission with Axiom will see a crew of 4 go to the ISS and stay for 8 days carrying out 25 science experiments. The cost? A cool 55 million per ticket. Although they’ll be carrying out research, three of the passengers are investors, while only one is a former NASA astronaut.

This kind of money is obviously extremely hard to come by and demonstrates how impactful wealth inequality is. Offering supremely wealthy people exclusive access to something groundbreaking seems to reward people with the highest honour for being rich. 

What’s more, names and faces in the history books won’t be of the scientists, professors and experts who poured their life and soul into understanding the cosmos, but instead of billionaires who paid their way in. 

We can’t be surprised about this, though, when we consider that billionaire businessmen have taken over space agencies like NASA in the bid for regular commercial space travel.

Besides it being unfair that the wealthy are given access to space travel above all others, there are other problems with the cost of space tourism. So many justifications for space tourism talk about the future of humanity and protecting the planet – but why then can’t these billionaires pour some of their dollars into solving the climate crisis, world hunger, and general inequality? 

To many, it appears that the billionaire owners of space companies are more interested in “winning” the space race and gaining monopoly over space than protecting the planet we currently live on.

Who is in charge?

This brings us to the next point. We are no longer in control of our future destiny among the stars. Instead, we have to rely on the whims and monetary power of three men, all of whom may not want the same things as us.

As Deepak Xavier, Oxfam’s previous International global head of Inequality said, “We’ve now reached stratospheric inequality. Billionaires burning into space, away from a world of pandemic, climate change and starvation… This is human folly, not human achievement”.

One could argue, did we ever have control over our future in space? Are billionaires really that different to members of governments making decisions about our future? While, in some ways, we were always relatively powerless against governments making decisions about spending public money and future innovations, at least the power rested in the hands of a larger and more diverse group of people. Now, everything comes down to just a few men.

Safety concerns

As you can imagine, there are some definite safety concerns when it comes to space travel and tourism. The industry does experience catastrophic failures from time to time, including one Virgin Galactic flight test resulting in the death of co-pilot Mike Alsbury in 2014.

There are several very dangerous parts of a space flight – the two most risky parts being the rocket launch and re-entering Earth’s atmosphere on the descent. While difficulties can arise due to faulty machinery, we also have to consider the possibility of human error and sheer bad luck.

Additionally, there are safety concerns about being in space for prolonged periods of time too, and this needs to be addressed when discussing the possibility of citizens regularly entering space. Space radiation can cause terminal illness and behavioural changes, isolation can cause mental health issues, and gravity can cause muscle and bone weakness – just for a few examples.

There are also concerns about licensing launches and protecting other flying vehicles in the sky. Space regulation is not a huge thing yet, but it’s important to ensure that rockets don’t hit planes, drones or helicopters, causing disastrous casualties or damage.

The environmental cost to the planet

Finally, it’s time to discuss the huge environmental cost of space tourism. This is one of the biggest concerns that people have about the prospect of regular commercial space travel, and rightly so. Below we discuss some of the biggest environmental concerns.

Large carbon footprint

Eloise Marais, a physical geography professor at UCL, suggests that the carbon footprint of flying to space in a rocket is about 100x more than taking a long-haul flight. This is partly because spacecrafts can only carry a very small amount of people. You can learn more about what a carbon footprint is and how to reduce your own in our blog post.

Depleting ozone layer

There are several ways space tourism can contribute to a depleting ozone layer. CO2 emissions and soot trap heat in the atmosphere and rockets emit up to 10 times more nitrogen oxides than the largest thermal power plant in the UK. Passengers generally create between 50 and 100 times more CO2 emissions than a passenger on a long aeroplane flight.

A depleted ozone layer basically means that greenhouse gases can heat up the Earth more easily, and this causes global warming. To improve your understanding of this process, you can check out our greenhouse gases blog post, and to consider the end result, you can read our climate change guide.

Polluted stratosphere

One of the biggest environmental concerns with space tourism is the soot cloud that rockets leave behind. Soot can accumulate in the stratosphere, which is between 5 and 31 miles above Earth, where it can’t be washed away by the weather. You can learn more about the composition of our atmosphere in our Atmospheric Chemistry: Planets and Life Beyond Earth course by the University of Leeds.

Because of this, black carbon can linger in the stratosphere for many years, and scientists don’t truly understand what the long-term effects of this could be. Senior scientist at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Karen Rosenlof, said to, “You are emitting pollutants in places where you don’t normally emit it. We really need to understand. If we increase these things, what is the potential damage?”.

Final thoughts – Is it worth it?

What can be concluded from all of this? Is space tourism a necessary and exciting scientific advancement, or the least sustainable tourism sector to ever exist, favouring the wealthy and leaving behind ordinary citizens who need help on Earth?

It seems as though the current plans that the billionaire space company owners have for space tourism are perhaps too ambitious, and focus on the wrong things. It’s true that space exploration and research could bring a wealth of new ideas and resources to Earth, and could provide a future existence for humans. 

But regular, short space flights for the recreational activities of the rich do not seem to be in the best interest of Earth. For a more considered and scientific approach on the future of humanity in space, you can enrol onto The Future of Life with Louisa Preston and learn much more.

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