Green Travel to Outerspace? Examining the Environmental Effects of Space Tourism

599px-the_earth_seen_from_apollo_17The recent announcement that Boeing would join the space tourism industry has not yet received much attention from the green travel movement. Instead, the media has focused on the politics and money concerning space travel. The political aspect is interesting, since Obama recently decided to retire the Space Shuttle program and so astronauts can only take the Russian Soyuz spacecraft (that is, until NASA gets restructured). The Obama administration has proposed that private businesses take over the aircraft aspect of space travel, which will is a strong push in the favor of space tourism. Well, sort of (here's where the money talk comes in). Boeing did not name the price for a ticket to space, but they did say it would be comparable to the Soyuz flights. That means it will likely be around $40 million, since that's what Guy Laliberte, founder of Canada's Cirque du Soleil, paid for his week-long tour in space.

So, the space tourism news is, indeed, big political and financial news, but what does it mean for the environment? Why are the green travel advocates staying so quiet this time around? When Virgin Galactic announced their space tourism ambitions several years ago (a trip costs "only" $200,000, comparably cheaper than Boeing), a handful of environmentalists were outraged. Richard Dyer, from Friends of the Earth called space tourism: "irresponsible elitist travel." He said, "There's a strange irony in tourists looking back at our damaged earth as they are helping to warm it up."

Stephen Attenborough, head of Astronaut Relations for Virgin Galactic, said that the aircrafts were actually "environmentally thousands of times cleaner than any other system in the past." Will Whitehorn, President of Virgin Galactic, did predict that the fuel motors would not be culturally acceptable within the next few decades, and therefore would need to change.  The specific environmental effects of space travel are not well-documented. Author Steven Fawkes estimated that a flight to space would produce three tons of carbon dioxide per passenger, which would equal a London-Singapore flight. However, an ESA study suggested that there were less CO2-equivalent emissions per passenger on a Virgin Atlantic space flight than a standard 747.

Furthermore, Virgin Galactic is well aware of environmental concerns. The company has invested in alternative fuels, sponsored a climate change prize and announced that their spaceport will use renewable energy. Virgin Galactic has also tried to market the green travel aspect of outerspace exploration, saying that space travel helps people get perspective on the world. They call it "space ecotourism". Whitehorn said that most of their potential travelers are very "environmentally conscious" and there will be "loads of windows" for viewing the earth (and space) from every direction on their aircraft.

It's true that an interesting phenomenon happens to people out in space: they get earth-struck. Author Frank White named this the "Overview Effect", and claimed that viewing the earth from afar caused astronauts to redefine their planet, their own role in the world, and their place in space and time.  Astronaut Tom Jones wrote this about his experiences in space: "My overwhelming sense was of Earth's uniqueness as a harbor for life. As a resident of this world, it's impossible not to see it now as a place both graced and threatened by mankind. Becoming a space traveler nearly inescapably makes one an advocate for careful stewardship of our environment." It is, he says, an incredibly beautiful view from out there; a sight that might make people fall in love with earth.

Photo Credit: NASA