Climate

Bezos knows space tourism could expedite human extinction. He’s going anyway.

The Amazon billionaire wants to live out his space fantasy and save humanity. He can't have it both ways.

Blue Origin launch site

The environmental impact of rocket launches is projected to increase significantly in the coming years, and space tourism is a driving force.

Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Jeff Bezos believes in long-term thinking, and he has a $42 million clock to prove it.

In 2018, Bezos gave the green light to begin construction on the 10,000-Year Clock. Carved onto the surface of Bezos's West-Texas mountain, the clock features giant mechanical components that are intended to tick once a year for the next 10,000 years. Danny Hillis, the man who conceived of the futurist art installation, wanted to prompt "generational-scale questions and projects." It is the sort of spectacle, one hopes, that might shake us out of familiar grooves of short-term gratification, daring us to plant the proverbial trees that shade future generations.

"Visiting the Clock will take a commitment," Bezos warns in a letter to would-be Clock gazers. "The nearest airport is several hours away by car, and the foot trail to the Clock is rugged, rising almost 2,000 feet above the valley floor."

It is perhaps ironic, then, that Bezos' joyride into space Tuesday could only further diminish the chances that humanity lasts another 1,000 years on earth, much less 10,000. The environmental impact of rocket launches is projected to increase significantly in the coming years, with space tourism acting as a driving force.

Blue Origin, the rocket company backed by Bezos, said as much itself: On July 9, the company Twitter account posted an infographic warning of the high ozone-layer impact of space tourism. The post was intended to disparage its rival, Virgin Galactic, which managed to beat Blue Origin to the punch in sending its billionaire backer to space. The infographic suggests that Virgin Galactic's hybrid rocket engine will inflict 100x more harm on the ozone relative to Blue Origin's liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen engine. It categorizes the Blue Origin ozone layer impact as "minimal" and the Virgin Galactic as "high."

In reality, we know very little about the environmental impacts of space tourism, and we likely won't find out until launches occur with far greater frequency.

"The literature is sparse and the present state of understanding of rocket emissions is weak," Martin Ross and James A. Vedda wrote in a report published by The Aerospace Corporation. The report provided the basis for Blue Origin's claim that its rockets have "minimal" ozone impact, but Ross and Vedda actually cast doubt on such subjective descriptions. Instead, the co-authors postulate that more-frequent rocket launches — driven in considerable part by space tourism — could result in their atmospheric impact being reassessed as "significant."

For now, this information gap comes with a lack of regulation on launch frequency that private space companies seem eager to exploit. Last week, for instance, Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier outlined a plan to scale operations such that the company can conduct multiple space tourism flights per day. Similarly, Ariane Cornell, director of astronaut sales at Blue Origin, stated earlier this year that the company would "love" to boost the frequency of launches and even offer flights from international locations.

There's no shortage of eligible passengers, either. Virgin Galactic received $80 million worth of deposits from 600 potential space tourists. Blue Origin garnered 7,600 bids from participants spanning 159 countries for its flight auction; the teenage son of a Dutch private equity executive got his spot after the winning bidder gave up a $28 million ticket due to scheduling conflicts. That's a steal relative to the $55 million it costs to hitch a ride on SpaceX's flight to the International Space Station.

That brings us to a larger question: What's the point of all of this? Surely Bezos must have a good reason for it. After all, this is the same man who built the 10,000-Year Clock, the man who plans to spend $10 billion on the Bezos Earth Fund by 2030.

In a 2018 interview published on Business Insider, Bezos stated: "I'm pursuing this work, because I believe if we don't we will eventually end up with a civilization of stasis, which I find very demoralizing. I don't want my great-grandchildren's great-grandchildren to live in a civilization of stasis."

"The solar system can easily support a trillion humans," Bezos added. "And if we had a trillion humans, we would have a thousand Einsteins and a thousand Mozarts and unlimited, for all practical purposes, resources and solar power unlimited for all practical purposes … By the way, I believe that in that timeframe we will move all heavy industry off of Earth and Earth will be zoned residential and light industry. It will basically be a very beautiful planet."

So Bezos supposes that space exploration will bring about an interplanetary renaissance and allow humanity to avoid extinction. But what does space tourism have to do with it? And when it comes to civilizations, is bigger always better?

There's an argument to be made that space tourism could help drive economies of scale in rocketry and therefore accelerate our path toward interplanetary civilization. And as a nifty little bonus, space tourism would be subsidized by thrill-seeking billionaires, allowing the government to devote its resources toward more-substantial space projects.

Avis Lang doesn't see it that way. Lang works as a researcher at the Hayden Planetarium and collaborated with Neil deGrasse Tyson to co-author "Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military."

"In the era of climate change, do we not need to find ways to cut back on our use of exhaustible resources?" Lang posited in an interview with Protocol. "Do we not need to find other solutions — and not merely technological solutions — but a revolution in the mindset of the consuming nations and the consuming individuals?"

To Lang, space tourism represents the antithesis of the mindset we need to address the climate crisis: "At a moment when we should be and need to be celebrating moderation in all things, there is the emblem of excess — the guy on this exciting little individual trip into orbit."

Lang comes from a sphere in the astronomy world that believes we must prioritize the conservation of Earth above all else. She's not alone: Thousands of astronomers, representing many of the world's foremost research institutions, have signed the "THERE IS NO PLANET B" open letter. The organization behind the letter seeks to address the misconception that "transporting people from Earth to destinations in space might be a viable way to cope with a degraded ecology on Earth."

Bezos has echoed this sentiment himself. In 2018, he tweeted: "We've sent robotic probes to every planet in this solar system. Earth is BY FAR the best one. We go to space to save the Earth. @BlueOrigin #NoPlanB[.]"

Still, it's hard to square Bezos' words with his actions. The connection between space tourism and interplanetary resource harvesting is already tenuous. Add to that the risk of space tourism further depleting the ozone and it becomes clear that Bezos decided to take a significant gamble based on his vision for the future of humanity.

Then to the final consideration in all of this: Is Bezos' vision for the future one that warrants the gamble?

Bezos' vision — for an Earth zoned for residential use, home to a human population swelling into the trillions — is one in which nothing has to give. It also conspicuously fails to address the inequalities that allow billionaires to fling themselves into space so they can feign to inspire the next generation of dreamers, many of whom are too depressed and too anxious to dream, precisely because they live in a world dominated by the unfettered interests of an out-of-touch tech elite.

Bezos decided it was all worth the risk. Now all we can do is watch.

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