Space Tourism is a Waste of Space

Updated: Sep 23


Jeff Bezos, the richest man on Earth, headed into suborbital space recently. He’ll be the second billionaire to have made such a journey this month, having been narrowly beaten by Richard Branson, who recently took an hour-long rocket trip to the edge of space. Next year, Elon Musk—who has traded the world’s richest title with Bezos a few times this past year—will also head to space.


If these billionaires get their way, there will be more of these flights in the future. Virgin Galactic has said it already has $80 million in deposits for its flights. All three are gunning to make “space tourism” a thing. But it comes with a major cost to the rest of us.


For the super-rich, a few minutes spent experiencing weightlessness and viewing the curvature of the Earth could leave humanity footing an ever-larger carbon pollution bill. It also reflects the increasingly unsustainable levels of inequality and concentration of power, which, coupled with the climate crisis, will lock in suffering for billions. That’s nothing to celebrate.


Neither Bezos nor Branson has been particularly forthcoming about the environmental impact of their flights. But then that’s precisely the problem. The initial climate impact of an individual space tourist flight may be comparatively small, but they will add up. And each flight signals something more ominous to come.


We know those impacts can be large in part because they emit pollution directly into the stratosphere. Studies show this can deplete the ozone layer that protects us from harmful ultraviolet rays.


Then there are greenhouse emissions to worry about. The VSS Unity winged spaceship that Branson took to space runs on a combination of nitrous oxide and hydroxyl-terminated polybutadiene (HTPB). HTPB is made from butadiene, which is a byproduct of using steam crackers to turn petroleum or natural gas into ethylene—a highly polluting process that releases emissions that are both toxic and planet-heating.


Globally, individuals in the richest 1% are already responsible for 175 times more greenhouse gas pollution than the average person in the bottom 10%. If space tourism takes off, it will make these disparities even worse.

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