Space Flight

What Is the Environmental Impact of Private Space Flight?

Jeff Bezos' and Richard Branson's recent space voyages have left many with questions around their carbon footprint. The answer depends on the spacecraft — and just how big commercial spaceflight becomes

The New Shepard Blue Origin rocket lifts off.
Joe Raedle | Getty Images

As billionaires vow to expand the market for private space flight, concerns about their space voyages' environmental impacts have also taken off. 

Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos joined Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson — whose July 11 flight made him the first of the billionaire space company owners to ride his own spacecraft — with his private company’s first passenger flight on Tuesday. 

Bezos’ July 20 trip — which reached a 66-mile altitude, making it the first private spacecraft to pass the internationally-recognized marker of space — was relatively environmentally friendly. Blue Origin has touted its liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen engine, pointing to studies that show it leads to 100x less Ozone layer loss and has 750x less climate forcing magnitude than the air-launched hybrid engine used by Virgin Galactic. 

The water emitted form rocket exhaust could increase the number of clouds, impacting the upper atmospheric layers, according to Darin Toohey, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Colorado, Bolder, in an email to Live Science. That impact, however, is not much concern to Toohey at the moment, considering the low amount of private rocket launches. 

But both companies, as well as fellow billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX, plan to open space flight to consumers. A new market report estimates the space tourism market will grow 17.15% each year of the next decade. 

The bigger concern, Toohey told Live Science, are small particles released during rocket flights, though Blue Origin’s suborbital launch vehicle does not produce much. A small amount of soot and aluminum oxides could have a disproportionate effect on the atmosphere. 

And while space flight’s carbon footprint pales in comparison to the commercial air flight industry, experts note that footprint is increasing exponentially.  

According to Gizmodo, Branson’s spaceship runs on a combination that includes butadiene, a byproduct of a highly pollutant process releasing toxic and warming emissions. A NASA climate scientist estimated Blue Origin’s carbon emissions per passenger mile were about 60 times that of a business class flight, but told Gizmodo more information was necessary. 

Other critics say the sheer amount of money invested by the billionaires into these flights — Bezos for years has sold $1 billion worth of his Amazon shares annually — could have been better spent. In the midst of record temperatures in the pacific northwest, these escapades seem tone deaf to the critics.  

It's a point the world’s wealthiest individual partially conceded Tuesday morning. 

In a CNN interview, Bezos was asked about criticism the flights are “joyrides for the wealthy,” who should be spending their money “trying to solve problems here on Earth.” 

"Well, I say they are largely right," Bezos said. "We have to do both. We have lots of problems here on Earth and we have to work on those." 

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