Richard Branson entered space yesterday.
Before take-off, Branson was sure to tweet: ‘It’s a beautiful day to go to space.’ There are no clouds in space so I’d be inclined to assume that it was, in fact, a very beautiful day to go to space. But you know what else is beautiful that Richard seems to have forgotten about? Our Earth. Which, by the way, is on fire in Canada and is a melting pot in the US right now, so it seems like an appropriate time for a billionaire to go book a holiday tearing through the ozone layer.
Space exploration, inclusive of the environmental impacts, hasn’t been all bad for our planet. Without it, we would not have those iconic first images of our dear little Earth and realise that’s all we’ve got, so we better start looking after it. It has deepened our understanding of how our world works and sparked environmental movements. Space exploration in the pursuit of science is one thing, but sending billionaires into orbit so that they can experience a gravity-free holiday is something else.
Travelling to space—like most forms of high-speed transport—results in a release of carbon emissions into the atmosphere. Last year there were 114 attempted orbital launches, which is significantly lower than the total emissions created from everyday commuters worldwide.
However, the bigger problem with space exploration is the trace gases and soot that are released by the rocket engines as they enter the upper atmosphere of the Earth. A report into the environmental impact of space launches found that holes in the ozone layers are the most concerning for our atmosphere and planet. Every time a rocket goes into space, it makes another hole. It’s like putting a hole in cling wrap and trying to reuse that same piece of cling wrap again for your sandwiches—it just doesn’t work. Except the cling wrap is our atmosphere, and we can’t get another piece.
The modern-day space race between Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Virgin’s Richard Branson doesn’t represent pushing the boundaries of human achievement. It represents stupidly rich people profiting once again from exploiting the Earth. Virgin Galactic took clear advantage following the flight when they announced they would be selling $500 million worth of stock after their share prices jumped nearly 100 percent. Plans (alongside Elon Musk’s Space X) to make space tourism like booking a flight to Bali, only slightly more expensive, is time and money that could be spent reversing issues like world hunger and environmental catastrophe. Instead, we have Branson capitalising on a mission to space for the sake of entertainment and saying shit like, ‘If we can do this, imagine what else we can do.’ I don’t want to imagine, because it’s not the stuff of dreams.