Space Tourism

[Image credit: JPL, copyright notice: can be used without prior permission]

Looking at a rocket launch, it is difficult not to be amazed by the scene of a huge machine shooting straight up into the sky, creating enormous smoke clouds around it. The astronauts on the rocket have trained for years for this moment and have a hectic few months of important scientific work awaiting them. However, with the rise of space tourism, some things have changed. These new space travelers do not receive much training and go to space mostly for their entertainment. While it is impressive that within a few decades, space flight has become so much more accessible, it also raises the question of whether we are prepared for a large space tourism economy, especially from a safety and sustainability standpoint.

Soon after the start of large-scale space activities by the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s, the idea of sending ‘outsiders’ or non-professional astronauts into space started. This first included civilian payload specialists and invited astronauts from allied countries, but later plans for sending tourists into space kicked off – although for multi-million ticket prices. Space agencies were initially hesitant to allow for much space tourism and they only sent a handful of people to their space stations. With the arrival of private companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic, commercial space tourism for much more affordable prices is starting to become a reality, with dozens of tourists crossing the Kármán line in the past few years. Each rocket launched has its effect on the environment. But what is this effect exactly?

The environmental impact of rocket launches in general is difficult to estimate, especially for future rockets which will possibly be used for space tourism. In terms of carbon dioxide for example, rockets burning hydrogen and oxygen (like Blue Origin’s New Shepard) do not directly produce carbon dioxide, though emissions are possibly within the production processes of these fuels. Rockets with direct carbon dioxide emissions, like SpaceX’s Falcon 9, emit approximately 200 to 400 tons of carbon dioxide per launch, comparable to a commercial flight from New York to London [s]. However, rockets typically have 1% of the passengers of commercial flights, making the carbon footprint of these passengers much larger.

Carbon dioxide is not the only emission, however. Kerosene-based rockets do not produce ‘clean’ burns, which leads to an emission of black soot into the upper regions of the atmosphere. Even clean, hydrogen-based rockets emit nitrogen and water vapor, resulting in very bright, long-lasting clouds in the upper atmosphere [s]. These emissions could both create a cooling or a heating effect, dependent on the conditions. Scientists are also worried about the effects of rocket launches on the ozone layer since every launch creates a small, short-lived hole [s]. Private companies are certainly not the only ones to be blamed here, as NASA’s new Space Launch System appears especially polluting [s]. However, much is still unknown as much research and data is still missing. Innovations in launch technologies happen very quickly, both looking at capabilities and environmental impact and making long-term predictions are difficult.

While space tourism is a growing market, there are still clear limits to its growth, again related to the price of the journey. While tickets will probably not cost tens of millions anymore, just looking at the payload launch cost per kg of often-used rockets shows that launching someone into space will not cost less than $ 100,000 for the foreseeable future [s]. Currently, we are still looking at costs of at least $1 million, which is out of reach for almost anyone (however, the same can be said about private jets – or plane tickets in general [s]).

The launch industry, especially for space tourism, is therefore currently still very small and mostly has local and short-term effects on the environment. Even if in relative terms a space tourist has an enormous carbon footprint, in absolute terms the impact is still negligible, especially when looking at the airline industry, with which space flight is often compared. A key difference however is the extent of regulation. The aviation industry is heavily monitored by independent organizations providing air traffic management, standardized communications, and clear international laws. As a result, plane flights are among the safest modes of transport [s]. Space flight is more reliant on the safety standards of public or private organizations. Despite historically high safety standards, approximately 3% of astronauts died during their space flight [s]. This shows that space flight still is and probably will remain a dangerous industry. A growth in space tourism will inevitably result in more deaths among (largely untrained) tourists.

Luckily, space is not without regulation either. While internationally binding space law is still a challenging subject, one agreement from the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) is especially relevant: the Liability Convention. In short, it mandates that a ‘launching state’ is absolutely liable to pay compensation for damages caused by their space assets (to foreign objects). A launching state in this case refers to the state from which a rocket is launched; the US would for example be liable for all damages caused by rockets and satellites launched by SpaceX [s]. The Liability Convention assigns absolute liability to States for damage suffered by other States on the ground or in airspace. However, in orbit damages would be assigned to States based on fault. The parameters and threshold of this fault have not been determined within the Liability Convention or other instruments of international law.

Still, this convention forms an enormous responsibility, and as a result, the US, together with countries such as France, Russia, and China, have implemented national regulation that makes launch companies liable through compulsory insurance for the first level of claims, ranging from $50 million to $500 million [s]. Any remaining claim above this is covered by the relevant ‘launching state’ (NB: the US has a slightly more complicated system). Apart from that, large space-faring countries often require space companies to obtain a license for launching, which includes a set of safety standards both for manned and cargo flights. While such measures should create a safe space flight environment, there is the fear that launch companies could follow examples from the maritime industry, where ships are registered in far-away tax havens. Space companies could launch from countries with fewer safety standards, making launches cheaper. The launching state would still be responsible for any damages caused by launches, even if they would not be able to actually pay in case of an incident [s].

These scenarios are still hypothetical. The only damage payment in such a structure was done by the Soviet Union to Canada in 1981 after they had to clean up a contaminated area in rural Canada due to a Soviet satellite break-up. The payment was done through a settlement after a few years of negotiations. Another request by a small Australian town to the US government to pay a ‘$400 littering fine’ for found satellite debris was unfortunately not answered. Space insurance claims on the other hand can be quite large, in the range of hundreds of millions of dollars, but they have always been between satellite operators, launchers, and manufacturers [s]. Claims between two unrelated parties in different parts of the world are a different story.

Insurances for space tourism are also still in the early steps and not enforced by the major space tourism companies [s]. The Liability Convention of UNOOSA does not mention anything about the harm done to potential passengers of the launch vehicles, only about other objects in space or on the ground. In fact, the US Federal Aviation Administration explicitly warns that they have not certified any launch and reentry vehicle for carrying people except SpaceX’s Dragon 2 capsule. That is not to say no attention is paid to it. The only deadly crash in commercial space flight testing, involving test pilot Michael Alsbury flying Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, has been thoroughly investigated by US safety bureaus. The accident was deemed a human error and the result was a set of safety recommendations [s]. In the end, companies themselves are responsible for safety.

In conclusion, while the space tourism industry is not exactly a ‘Wild West’, there is still a lot of confusion and therefore freedom in organizing tourism trips into space. Though the total effect of space tourism on the environment is minor, it is very disproportionate to other industries and local effects can be significant. The policy gap that exists, both on the level of sustainability but also on safety, deserves attention and discussion as the sector can easily spiral out of control.

Author: Frank de Veld