Space Travel & Climate Change

Credit: Michael Seeley, FlickrCC

Most people are thrilled by watching a rocket take off.  It was even more impressive to me when SpaceX started landing spent stages.  The simultaneous landing of the two side boosters at Cape Canaveral after the Delta Heavy launch was surreal.  To me it was almost like watching science fiction.

But then we need to think about what is coming out of that rocket and propelling it into space.  The composition of the exhaust depends on the fuel.  Because of the fame of SpaceX and its unprecedented achievements, and because Superheavy is the largest and most powerful rocket ever built, I will focus on them.

Starship and Superheavy use methane and oxygen as propellants.  When a methane molecule is oxidized it produces one molecule of CO2 and two molecules of H2O.  The upcoming launch of Superheavy and Starship will generate an estimated 2,683 tons of CO2.  A typical passenger car emits 4.6 tons of CO2 in a year, so the launch of Starship and Superheavy will produce as much emissions as 583 cars driven for one year.

When asked if they were concerned about this, a SpaceX spokesman said that they don’t emit a fraction of the emissions from agriculture or commerce and industry, so it’s okay.  This rationale – “I get a pass because my emissions are tiny by comparison with whole other industries” is why our emissions are increasing and not decreasing.  We love space flight because it is so exotic, and so we don’t want to give it up.  But we don’t want to give anything up.  But that will change when we finally realize that this is a matter of life and death, and that our first and only priority is the reduction and elimination of the combustion of fossil fuels.

The fossil fuel industry spent billions to lie to the public about the danger of continuing to use fossil fuels, just like the tobacco industry did about smoking).  As a result, little has been done to this very day to curb emissions.  Despite the fact that the growth of the renewable energy industry has exploded, even after two decades, wind and solar only account for 1.4% of the world’s energy use.

But if truth be told, it wasn’t just the fossil fuel industry’s fault.  It was our fault of so many of us for believing them because that’s what we wanted to believe.  We didn’t want anything to do with energy austerity.  As a result, the response to this threat of our own making (when we finally do respond) is going to be very painful – assuming we can do it at all.   If that means giving up space flight, then so be it. The only exception I would make to that is launching spacecraft with the purpose of better understanding how the atmosphere and the oceans are responding to global warming. For example, we desperately need to better understand how particulates and clouds affect global warming.  Today we are using guesswork.  The Star Trek dream will have to wait until we stabilize the planet’s atmosphere.  Even then, the world will be a much hotter place, so we could then focus our attention on carbon capture from the air.  It isn’t an easy thing to do but stopping emissions must be our first priority.

Energy is the life blood of the modern world, which is why it is so hard for us to stop using more and more of it.  Part of the increase comes from a growing population and part from more intensive use of energy.  Both of these factors must be reversed, but how do you get people to stop having babies, particularly in undeveloped areas where there is a premium on manual labor and a hostility to family planning?  And how do you get a consumer society to curb its endless appetite for more?  That’s why it is going to require a hammer on the head to wake us up, and climate change is poised to do just that.  We are not that far from “drop everything else and run to do everything in our power to stop anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.”