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If there is a future for Space Tourism then what are its impacts?

5th November, 2014

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The very unfortunate Virgin Galactic Space Ship Two accident last weekend has prompted a debate about the value of Space Tourism – whether it will only ever be the reserve of the super elites or whether Virgin Galactic is just the beginning of the next stage in civil aviation.

There are those that hail Richard Branson as this era’s Orville or Wilbur Wright, a pioneering aviator expanding horizons for the future of aviation. If this is the case, then what is its future?

The immediate future for Space Tourism is essentially civil aviation at a very high altitude, offering passengers with a few moments of zero gravity. Those customers will be the elite of the elites if tickets are going to cost anything like $250,000.

Yet, if the Department for Transport is willing to spend time (and they never seem to have time to do anything we ask of them) carrying out a public consultation on the possible locations of future spaceports then there must be some future for the industry.

What would be the implications of a growing Space Tourism industry?

There would be significant safety considerations, which we raised back in 2007.  If the Space Tourism industry does grow then these safety concerns will need greater attention.

There are also going to be implications for the environment, particularly the climate. Richard Branson claims that the CO2 emissions involved with putting a space tourist in orbit for around a minute would be similar to the emissions associated with an economy round trip from London to Singapore. There are also concerns about the impact on the climate of soot emissions at extremely high altitudes, which could dwarf the non-CO2 impacts associated with today’s civil aviation.

The small number of passengers that could be carried on a Virgin Galactic Space Ship Two means that the individual climate footprint of each space tourist is likely to be huge. If passengers reach a few thousand a year within ten years, as Simon Calder suggests, then there would be an increasingly significant impact on the climate.

For today’s aviation industry, there is already a gap between technological innovation and growth in emissions. If Space Tourism does become a growing part of the industry then that gap will become even greater.

Richard Branson is one of the biggest supporters of Space Tourism. Yet, he also pledged to commit $3 billion to tackle climate change in 2006 and has so far only delivered a tenth of it. For the future of the Space Tourism industry, and indeed civil aviation as a whole, Branson needs to think about and invest far more in the technology that would be needed to deliver it without damaging the environment.