Space exploration must be responsible

Illustration of a space ship going from earth to mars
Halcyon Orvendal / The Mossy Log

Space, the final frontier. Star Trek fans are not alone in thinking space is cool — with so many constellations to count, curvature to measure and asteroids to smack into the earth Deep Impact-style, thereby ending all macroscopic life on this soggy ball of mold. Unfortunately, along with all the scientific intrigue and philosophical mystery comes a plethora of environment-killing corporate baggage. This raises the question: Is space exploration worth it? In my opinion, only if done responsibly with an eye to the future.

My favorite expression of this sentiment comes from the TV series The Expanse, which is set in a future where humanity has colonized Mars while Earth suffers from climate change. In one scene, someone from Mars sneeringly accuses Earthers of taking a perfect paradise and destroying it — which is, indeed, precisely what we are doing now by continuing with our level of CO2 emissions. 

That said, while rocket flights certainly emit a ludicrous amount of carbon, it is a tiny portion of the amount produced from other sources. One estimate has global space travel at 1.2 million metric tons of CO2. In contrast, the EPA measures total emissions from the US at 5,000 million metric tons. Furthermore, satellites are widely used for collecting climate data, unlike the transportation industry. I think there is an argument to be made that rockets are actually one of the only justifiable uses of fossil fuels; we can heat our houses and go from place to place using renewable energy, but it is nigh-impossible to get a satellite to orbit using solar panels.

The elephant in the space-room has been SpaceX for a few years now, and that seems unlikely to change anytime soon. SpaceX crafts moved 116,000kg of equipment to space last year, five times more than the next runner-up. It was also responsible for more than 75% of payload deliveries globally in 2019

I dislike Elon Musk as much as the next LC student, but SpaceX is incredibly relevant and, despite the bad rap it frequently gets, seems to be more committed to legitimate science and useful-to-the-average-person satellites than many competitors (even given the publicity stunts). Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, for instance, both sell joyrides to space as their main product — a clear waste of resources, which only entertain the uber-rich. SpaceX is admittedly guilty of selling private flights to Jared Isaacman, but at least these flights do not make up the majority of the company’s income.

SpaceX’s newest big project, Starship, will be the first rocket with all stages reusable, which cuts down on manufacturing CO2 emissions (and costs) significantly. NASA’s Artemis III mission scheduled for 2025 plans to leverage Starship for the first manned mission to the moon in fifty years. I support people being sent to the moon — it is a relatively close-by destination with awesome research potential, and since the moon has such low gravity, it is correspondingly easier to get back into orbit.

Manned Mars missions, however, are a stupid idea. First of all, Mars ranges from 100 to 1,000 times farther than the moon. While this does not make such a huge difference in fuel consumption, as the vast majority of fuel is expended getting into and out of orbit, it does mean that help would be unreachable. If anything breaks down on Mars, it likely will not ever be fixed. Send rovers to Mars instead; rovers are great. NASA has planned an ambitious mission to return samples gathered by Perseverance back to Earth. Right now, sending people to Mars is foolish and reckless.

My primary reason for disliking the idea of people on Mars is that a number of billionaires have made noises suggesting they think Mars could serve as a sort of “emergency Earth,” as the real thing is devastated by rising sea levels, hurricanes and ecological collapse. This is a dangerous and foolish proposition — Earth may be experiencing an extinction event, but Mars does not have anything to go extinct in the first place. Also, I refuse to let the top 0.1% escape the mess they are disproportionately responsible for.

Another issue that arises in getting to space is Kessler Syndrome, which is the idea that as debris — mostly small particulates moving very fast — accumulate in orbit, it becomes increasingly difficult to find a spot clear enough to safely put a rocket or satellite. Specifically, research suggests that once enough debris is present, collisions will produce new debris faster than the old scraps can deorbit. Kessler Syndrome is primarily caused by anti-satellite (ASAT) tests conducted by the US, Russia and China, where a missile is launched at and destroys a satellite, scattering shrapnel which stays in orbit for decades or centuries.

Conversations about the place of space in the future are important to continue having. It certainly does seem reckless to continue building and sending rockets to space (especially for publicity stunts and joyrides) while climate scientists desperately beg us to reduce our CO2 footprint, but I think there is a place for responsible space exploration. Private space flights set a dangerous precedent, as do ASAT tests. In the past, international law has had no teeth when it comes to space and I think that needs to change, with increased regulations and enforcement concerning what is allowed and what is not.

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