Space Tourism — Should The Sky Really Be The Limit?

By: Raye Yap 2MD3, Zhao Zijian 1SA6

As kids, some of us may recall watching ‘Little Einsteins’, an animated television series featuring four kids that go on trips in their ‘favorite rocket ship’. In one particular episode, they go on a mission to outer space to return a ring to the planet, Saturn. I remember watching that as a child and becoming fascinated with the prospect of going to space. After all, at that time, it was still a considerably new practice.

The Little Einsteins in space, from the episode ‘Ring Around the Planet

In fact, the origins of space travel go just several decades back to October 4, 1957. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.) launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to orbit Earth. This happened during the period of political hostility between the Soviet Union and the United States, otherwise known as the Cold War. 

Photograph of a Russian technician putting the finishing touches on Sputnik 1, humanity’s first artificial satellite. Credit: NASA/Asif A. Siddiqi

In the present day, we see space travel far more frequently for a wider range of purposes. While scientists are still sending out astronomical satellites to observe planets and galaxies, we are also beginning to see an introduction of ‘space tourism’ – the act of traveling into space for recreational purposes. One recent example would be the American multibillionaire, Jeff Bezos, who made a short trip to space as part of his own (growing) space tourism company, Blue Origin. 

Jeff Bezos, the founder of Blue Origin. Credit: Blue Origin

But, what is space tourism really for, anyway? Is it really an activity only reserved for the most extravagant, wealthiest people with nowhere else to channel their money? 

Some have proposed that space tourism would greatly contribute to scientific research. Though the most recent flights were perhaps not long enough to offer enough insight, we may be able to see longer space flights in the future. Then, we would have the opportunity to study long-term physiological changes in humans as a result of being in space. There are also chances to carry out small-scale experiments on these touristic flights. For instance, on the recent Virgin Galactic flight, plants were taken on board to see how they would react to microgravity. 

A Virgin Galactic spacecraft, providing suborbital spaceflights to space tourists. Credit: British GQ Magazine 

Others have proposed that space tourism is to prepare for the creation of a colony on the moon or Mars for research purposes, or even as a backup plan should the Earth eventually become uninhabitable. While a lot of this research and preparation will need to be done by scientists and astronauts, it’s still true that for this to happen, more ordinary people will need to be able to visit space. In this way, space tourism could be a great starting point.

However, we cannot ignore the elephant in the room when it comes to space tourism, or space travel in general – its detrimental effect on the environment. One of the key impacts discovered in a study by scientists at UCL, MIT, and the University of Cambridge was emissions of black carbon (otherwise known as soot), from rocket fuel combustion. Soot is a huge contributor to climate change, which absorbs solar radiation and heats the atmosphere, accelerating snow and ice melt. 

A launching spacecraft releasing loads of pollutive gas. Credit: SpaceX/ZUMA Wire/Shutterstock

The study also acknowledges the need for further research on the impact of commercial space launches on ozone levels. Pollutants from solid-fuel rockets and debris are particularly harmful to stratospheric ozone. Despite there being little impact on the ozone layer so far, predicted growth trends for space tourism indicate that the combination of these emissions could cause significant damage to the ozone layer in the future. This is truly quite concerning, as it has been almost two years since Jeff Bezos kickstarted the billionaire space race, and thousands of seat reservations have already been made for the first commercial flights into space.

So, what can be done to make space travel more environmentally friendly? Although not currently viable, the answer lies in the realm of science fictions.

Illustration of an orbital elevator, Mobile Suit Gundam 00

Featured in countless sci-fi imaginations, the orbital elevator is one of the most promising contestant for an eco-friendly space-traveling opportunity. Using electricity generated from renewable sources such as solar, wind and tidal power, the orbital elevator can transport people and goods from the ground to a height of around 2000 kilometers of elevation, where take-off of space vehicles is much easier, conserving fuel and carbon-dioxide emissions.

Another option is ion engines. Ion engines are different from conventional engines that are most commonly used in the space industry as it consumes a lot less fuel to reach the same speed. This is also believed to be the reason for ion engines to be used on space missions where fuel are limited, such as the Deep Space 1, a satellite which NASA launched to orbit the sun. 

Deep Space 1, NASA. Credit: NASA

With every strength, comes a weakness. Although ion engines are highly efficient, it is difficult for ion engines alone to launch a spacecraft into space. Thus, more research and development is required.

In the future, when our children gaze into the boundless night sky, perhaps they will too dream about space travel like we did a hundred years ago. The only difference is that this time, their dreams would not remain as dreams, but something that they can achieve.

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