Spring break in space? It depends.



SPACED OUT. Astronaut Mark Vande Hei peers at the Earth below from inside the seven-windowed cupola, the International Space Station’s window to the world. What might space tourism at the ISS look like?

Space tourism has been making headlines in recent months due to a number of successful spacecraft launches. At first glance, the achievements of this growing industry can seem like another big step for mankind, however, the rise of space tourism raises significant moral and environmental concerns.

Space tourism is defined as “the practice of traveling to space for recreational purposes,” and is a subject that has become increasingly popular in recent years. In 2001, American engineer Dennis Tito became the first space tourist when he paid a whopping 20 million dollars to ride Russian spacecraft Soyuz TM-32 to the International Space Station (ISS). Now, space tourism sees billionaires like Richard Branson, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos founding their own companies and launching their own rockets with the intent of making space tourism, or even life on other planets, a possibility for a greater share of the world’s population.

Musk, Branson, and Bezos have all emphasized the fact that the rise of space tourism will give way to the increased accessibility and normalization of space travel. However, these trips to space can hardly be called accessible when a single ticket costs a few hundred thousand dollars. Of course, that’s not even a drop in the bucket for Bezos, who spent 5.5 billion dollars on his most recent trip to space. The vehicle that Bezos traveled in was built so that it could return to space multiple times, thus lowering the overall cost of space travel, but that didn’t stop news outlets and common people alike from calling Bezos’ endeavor a gross display of wealth or “[a] joyride for the wealthy.” In a July 2021 article, Global Citizen compiled a list of ways in which Bezos’ 5.5 billion dollars could have helped to solve humanitarian issues here on earth. Key examples include: fully funding humanitarian efforts in 6 countries, saving 37.5 million people from starvation, and obtaining vaccines for 2 billion people in low-income countries.

The rise of the space tourism industry also raises significant environmental concerns. “The carbon footprint of launching yourself into space in one of these rockets is incredibly high, close to about 100 times higher than if you took a long-haul flight,” said Eloise Marais, a physical geography professor at the University College London. Even when alternate fuel sources are considered, rockets still release soot and water vapor, which can adversely affect the Earth’s ozone layer and rapidly accelerate global warming. The soot released from just 1,000 space tourism flights could warm Antarctica by almost 1 degree Celsius. And while 1,000 flights may seem like a lot, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic has a goal of eventually launching 400 flights a year. This means that the company would reach the 1,000 flight threshold in just two and a half years. It’s also important to remember that the carbon footprint of these flights stems far beyond just the launching of the rockets. The research and development required to create these vehicles as well as flights taken by crew members to reach the launch site account for a majority of the total carbon emissions.

With figures like Branson, Bezos, and Musk as the spokespeople for space tourism, the development of this industry can seem like a beneficial idea. However, the advancement of space tourism doesn’t truly allow for more people to experience space travel. In actuality, it allows for the super-rich to use space as their playground and throw away billions of dollars that could be spent fixing pressing issues here on earth. The industry is also on track to rapidly accelerate global warming and damage the earth’s atmosphere. So no, billionaires, the rise of space tourism is not another big step for mankind or “the best day ever”, it’s a sure-fire way to accelerate the earth’s problems and drive the nail into the coffin for us all.