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Driving Change

The space industry has a sustainability problem

Privatizing space could bring immense benefits to humanity, but is the industry thoughtfully considering the impact of emissions, space debris and employee well-being?

An astronaut on a space walk

Image via Shutterstock/Blue Planet Studio

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy gave one of his most historic speeches as he catapulted the U.S. into the space race against Russia. His words still hold immense passion and foresight today: “We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained and new rights to be won… We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

In the short time humans have focused on space, we have landed humans on the moon, studied the deepest parts of the galaxy and privatized the industry. Right now, you can even pay as low as $257,000 on SpaceX’s website to ship your cargo to space.

Putting aside futuristic plans of space tourism, traveling to Mars and mining for minerals on asteroids, space exploration has practical benefits for humans today. The ability to track humanitarian issues and the impacts of climate change from space are just two reasons humans must keep looking to the stars.

At the same time, however, this great desire for space exploration is driving concern over short-term environmental and social impacts.

The problem with space

The sustainability challenges associated with space exploration and other commercial activities fall into three categories: 

  1. The emissions produced from launching spaceships; 
  2. The space junk that is quickly increasing and floating in Earth’s orbit; and
  3. Potential harm to known or unknown species, along with human/employee rights concerns.

The space industry is truly different when it comes to measuring or assessing issues such as these, according to Paul Holdredge, director of industrials and transport at consultancy BSR.

"The industry is talking about sustainability, but they’re not yet using the same language that you and I might use," Holdredge told me. "Many of the ESG rating systems, questionnaires, methods of evaluating companies — they frankly don’t apply to the space industry."

The launch emissions

Consider the process of sending rockets into orbit. "There are a great number of launches forecasted, and the impact of those emissions in the upper atmosphere from various rocket chemistries is still not well understood," Holdredge said. 

While the percentage of fossil fuels burned by the space industry is 1 percent of what is burned by aviation, the fear among experts is that the emissions impacts of launches on the upper atmosphere and ozone layer are still widely unknown, especially as the frequency of launches increases. Also concerning is the fact that emissions have a tendency to linger longer.  

Commercial space companies are driving a $500 billion industry right now, growing about 9 percent per year. That puts the sector on a path for about $1 trillion by 2040, according to Holdredge. This growth will bring an increase in spaceship launches, across both the private and government sectors. In 2022, 180 successful rocket launches happened, 44 more than in 2021. Much of this growth is led by Elon Musk’s company SpaceX, which launched a rocket once every six days on average. That doesn’t account for the impact of launches by two other high-profile private space companies, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic. 

Emissions reductions could come in the form of less carbon-intensive fuel chemistries — but that will take ongoing research and development. Other solutions that could help decarbonize the industry include a carbon nanotube space elevator that stretches into space, allowing for a more cost efficient and less energy intensive way to travel. Almost like a transit system but into space. But as this article points out, by the time we are able to build a space elevator, it might not be necessary given how quickly commercial space exploration is evolving.

Littering in space is the status quo, for now

A big concern beyond emissions is orbital litter. More than 25,000 pieces of space junk and debris larger than 10 centimeters are floating in Earth's orbit, according to the World Economic Forum. 

This junk includes anything from components left behind during launches to decommissioned satellites to other objects and chunks of material caused by asteroids hitting satellites or satellites hitting each other. Over time, this debris builds and floats in orbit, a concept known as the Kessler Syndrome. The fear is that this growing cloud of stuff could pose a danger to launches over time. Last year, SpaceX had to issue a statement amid concern by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration that SpaceX’s Starlink satellites might cause a collision with the International Space Station.

The solution to space waste? Several companies and early-stage startups such as OrbitGuardians and ClearSpace focus on debris retrieval and removal. The work of the Space Sustainability Rating, launched by the World Economic Forum and developed by a group of industry players including the European Space Agency and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is also a source of potential solutions.

The system offers recommendations for how aerospace companies can improve the long-term sustainability and longevity of their launches and satellite design, as well as address debris mitigation. The rating is based on a four-badge system from bronze, silver, gold and platinum. 

Other aspects of sustainability

Aside from environmental factors, Holdredge said companies must increasingly consider the human impacts of space exploration. Among the concerns they’ll need to consider: how to take care of employees working in space; how to feed them; howto care for their waste; how to protect them from radiation; and more. These issues fall under the umbrella of human and employee rights. 

As we colonize other planets, what rights must we consider for other potential life — known or unknown?

Human-driven climate change is causing the extinction of species on Earth that we have little knowledge about. We should strive to avoid bringing about the same harm to other planets.

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