The billionaire space race is accelerating, with Bezos’ trip to space coming in the same month as Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson’s. Both Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are competing with SpaceX — another rocket company run by another billionaire, Elon Musk.
Billionaires staying in space might do the world a favor, especially when they own fake news rags like the Washington Post, but getting there doesn’t — at least if you take carbon emissions as seriously as the billionaires say they do.
While Blue Origin reportedly used relatively clean fuel, the wider billionaire space race is likely to accelerate carbon emissions. The Guardian quotes Elois Marais, a University College London professor who notes that sending a rocket to space generally emits vastly more carbon emissions than a plane.
“For one long-haul plane flight it’s one to three tons of carbon dioxide [per passenger],” says Marais. For one rocket launch it’s 200-300 tonnes of carbon dioxide carrying 4 or so passengers – close on two orders of magnitude more, according to Marais. “So it doesn’t need to grow that much more to compete with other sources.”
Right now, the number of rocket flights is very small: in the whole 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.
But emissions from rockets are emitted right into the upper atmosphere, which means they stay there for a long time: two to three years. Even water injected into the upper atmosphere – where it can form clouds – can have warming impacts, says Marais. “Even something as seemingly innocuous as water can have an impact.”