We analyze the environmental and social impact of the space race with the Debt Observatory in Globalization (ODG).
The super-rich Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and Elon Musk have started a space race that, until some years ago, was exclusive to the NASA.
Their quest for stratosphere tourism are more questionable than ever in light of the climate crisis and after the pandemic has increased poverty in the world by over 200 million people.
But what is their real impact on our planet?
40 years of emissions of one person in the world
Jeff Bezos’ 10-minute journey with five others on board would have produced the same emissions as those generated by a single person in 40 years.
The space race "does not correspond to the needs of the times we are living”, says Alfonso Perez from ODG, who adds that “to move a vertical spaceship at a speed six times higher than gravity you need a tremendous amount of energy, associated to very high emissions”.
In fact, there is talk of 200 to 300 tonnes of CO2 emitted for this single trip, while the average global per capita emissions stand at 4.8 tonnes per year.
"Some people, throughout their life on this planet will never reach the emissions of Bezos’ flight. If it were up to me, on his return I would give him a bicycle and tell him he can do nothing else in his life because he’s overshot his carbon quota”, he adds with irony.
At the same time, according to the Financial Times, a spaceship like Branson’s emits up to 13 times more CO2 than a transatlantic flight.
Even if some use liquid hydrogen, which is less polluting that other fuels, emissions are still generated to produce this liquid hydrogen, not to mention that these spaceships generate soot, which damages the ozone layer and harms the atmosphere, and this could become a problem if space tourists boom.
These corporations justify their proposal as a means of doing scientific research when, in reality, the data on sub-orbital space were gathered in the 60s’, Perez explains.
Tourism for 0.0001% of the population
For Perez, these flights are “utter and pointless craziness”, only accessible to tiny minority, “a trip to space for 0.0001% of the world’s population”.
The price: around 30 million US Dollars. “Only 20% of people in the world have access to a plane in their lives. Imagine who can afford a ticket to space”, he ads.
The NASA pays a Russian federal space agency 80 to 90 million dollars to send an astronaut to space, says activist Yayo Herrero in a letter in CTXT adding the cost of the astronaut’s salary, food, energy and minerals consumed.
As to what could be done with these huge amounts of money, David Beasley, the UN Food Programme executive director says that to save the lives of the 41 million people who will die from hunger this year, we would need 6 billion dollars and invites the three magnates to join efforts to fight hunger in the world in a tweet: “We can fix this quickly”.
Is this really just a game of the super-rich? While Bezos and Branson work on sub-orbital flights –they don’t enter the Earth’s orbit– Musk is preparing grand prowess such as trips to international stations, orbiting the moon or, even, travelling to Mars.
"These are all tests to colonize space”, says Perez, and he ads: “It makes no sense to set our house on fire and, instead of putting it out, going somewhere else”.
The careers of some of these super-rich men are, to say the least, questionable. This is the case of Bezos, the owner of on-line shopping giant Amazon. His words thanking his workers and customers after his trip to space raised criticism on social media.
Amnesty International suggested to Bezos that a better way of thanking them was by improving their working conditions, to stop spying on them, and allowing them to unionise, and abandoning exhausting productivity goals.
How can we stop this space race?
There already is talk about how to stop this race. Some propose higher taxation, but ODG believes it should be banned.
One way of fighting against this indecency is to turn public opinion against it; and Perez considers the public is little positioned. He gives the example of the Swedish campaign 'flygskam', which pointed at people going on climate-irresponsible trips and actually managed to change public opinion.
Some also say we should stop the corporate power of these large corporations. Perez supports the idea of public intervention and nationalising companies in strategic sectors to manage them from a variety of proposals.