Environmental groups have heatedly lashed out at Virgin Galactic’s plans for space tourism. Criticism has reached a point at which a former senior brand advisor defended billionaire Sir Richard Branson’s brainchild, claiming that the firm’s venture will deliver long-term environmental solutions. But is Virgin’s SpaceShipTwo, as it is currently named, an expensive polluting junket serving only to give some wealthy people a decadent joyride, or will the results provide scientific benefits that ultimately will heal the planet?
The evidence suggests both.
Indeed, space exploration is an expensive, fuel-intensive, and polluting venture. Rockets and spacecraft need liquid hydrogen fuel, which at first appears to be clean-burning. However, one kilogram of liquid hydrogen requires 15 kilowatt hours of electricity, and a space shuttle launch blasts about 113 tons of it at takeoff: the equivalent of what 130 American homes’ electricity need for an entire year. Add the 28 tons of carbon and 23 tons of particulates that are belched around Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, and you have a very dirty science program.
Nevertheless, Virgin’s claims do merit credibility. Look up “Richard Branson and environment” on your favorite search engine, and find that Branson has been speaking about combating climate change long before it was fashionable. Allan Knight, Virgin Galactic’s advisor, points out that rocket materials’ technology has not changed in the past 30 years, so Virgin’s research should develop lighter components that manufactures will use in future passenger flight airplanes, reducing fuel consumption and emissions. The aviation industry, of course, also has ties to military research and development. There is an argument for military spending resulting in advances in battery technology and lighter aircraft materials. So advances in aviation and military research can trickle down to civilian use. But at what ROI, especially for a vehicle that currently can take six passengers at a time?
Virgin Galactic comes across as more of a well-rehearsed public relations machine than a green technology company. The venture claims that future spaceship model could operate using renewable fuels or solar power, without explaining exactly how. Algae may sound like a great alternative for fueling a Virgin spaceship, but currently the producing one part of algae requires 1000 parts of water, and right now algae biofuels can not scale to the the aviation industry’s needs. By giving celebrities and wealthy tourist-astronauts views from space, Virgin also touts that the pictures will turn us all into environmentalists. Shelling out US$200,000 for such a tour however, appears indulgent: and anyone living near the noxious port of Los Angeles, Nigeria’s oil fields, or in the dust bowls scarring Australia can tell you that abundant evidence exists suggesting that the earth is confronting severe pressure from an over-consumption of resources and fuel.
Green auditing is a growing field, and has the potential to employ more university finance majors. If any project is ripe for such a rigorous evaluation, it’s Virgin Gallactic.