Oh No! Rocket Launches Are Bad for the Environment? We’d Better Stay at Home Then

A small environmental impact, Falcon 1 launches in September 2008 (SpaceX)
A small environmental impact, Falcon 1 launches in September 2008 (SpaceX)

For every article written about the amazing advances in space vehicle technology, there are two negative comments about the pointlessness of space exploration.What’s the point?“, “We have war, famine, poverty and human suffering around the world, why invest billions on space?“, “What’s space exploration ever done for me?“. However, today, after I wrote a pretty innocuous article about the awesome SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket being hoisted vertically on the launchpad at Cape Canaveral, I get a comment (anonymous, naturally) starting off with, “This launch and others like it should be halted indefinitely until it’s carbon footprint and environmental impact can be accounted for.” The commenter then goes into something about making an environmental assessment, levying SpaceX’s taxes and setting up a board of environmental scientists. Oh please.

On the one hand, I’m impressed by this person’s spirited stand against environmental damage, carbon emissions and global warming, but on the other, this is probably one of the most misplaced environmentalism attacks I have seen to date. There are extremists on both sides of the “green” debate, but the last thing we need is an attack against the only answer we have to fight climate change. And that answer comes in the form of a cigar shaped polluter, blasting into Earth orbit; whether you like it or not, it is a necessary (yet small) evil…

Does the Shuttle really generate as much carbon as a Hummer? It's close (NASA)
Does the Shuttle really generate as much carbon as a Hummer? It's close (NASA)

Some of the comments I get on the Universe Today are hilarious. Admittedly, they can be pretty nasty too (2012 anyone?), and others are outright rude (edit»delete). It’s not that I mind, but there seems to be this online attitude that you can say what you like to whom you like without consequence. Fortunately, on the Universe Today and Astroengine, we both exercise the right to ban, so be nice.

To be honest, this doesn’t happen too often (apart from if I mention the LHC, Mayans or Planet X; they are the keywords for anger, and cursing, plus personal attacks), and I totally embrace any alternative theories and opinions. I actually really, really appreciate a good debate in the comment boxes, and I make a point of participating when I can.

So today, I get this comment that started a good meaty debate under my SpaceX article, so I felt compelled to get involved. The best reply to the above comment was left by a regular reader, Maxwell, saying, “Spaceflight is too important an endeavor to dick around with red tape.” And I agree.

As I spent 15 minutes writing my reply, I thought I’d base an Astroengine post around it, so here’s my response to the whole “rockets are bad” argument:

I write an article about one of the biggest advances in commercial spaceflight history and we wind up talking about how bad rockets are for the environment!

I’m pretty sure the effects of rocket emissions on the atmosphere are minimal compared with the routine daily emissions we all generate. Also, from articles I’ve previously written, companies such as SpaceX are acutely aware of pollution and have taken measures to supplement launches with enrolment in carbon-offset projects. Also, their engines are generally very efficient, minimising pollution.

The argument against advancing our spacefaring ability because “there are more problems on Earth that need fixing first” simply does not hold water. Science endeavour in general enhances our lives in ways I doubt we’ll ever fully comprehend. For now, rocket launches are the best way to get us into space, and until another alternative comes along (that I’m sure a commercial entity such as SpaceX will be the first to design), the small amount of ecosystem damage caused by a few launches might be a necessary evil (although I’d debate it is not a huge contributing atmospheric impact).

Space-based solar power could be THE revolution for the future of mankind. We have a long way to go, but if we are looking for an endless energy resource, we might be on the verge of becoming a viable space-borne civilization. All going well, this will help the world on a vast scale.

Unfortunately, wars, famine and human/ecological suffering will still continue, but it can, perhaps, be alleviated by having an extroverted view on human evolution. Introverted attitudes stifle growth (economic, evolutionary, technological), therefore making the world a very bleak place.

Peaceful technological advances do not equal human suffering, it’s illogical to think otherwise. Weapon tech advances on the other hand will continue whether we have rockets or not, unfortunately, that is human nature. — Moi, Universe Today.

By an amazing stroke of luck, I find that fellow blogger, Ethan Siegel over at Starts With A Bang! had written a great article about the environmental impact of Shuttle launches. After running the numbers, he finds NASA is responsible for a pretty tiny amount of pollution:

So let’s be honest about this: if NASA managed to get rid of the solid rocket boosters altogether and replace them with hydrogen fuel, they would have saved a total, over the last 28 years, of 42,000 tonnes of pollutants in the atmosphere. On the other hand, American cars, of which there are about 125 million on the road in any year, have emitted about 14 billion tonnes of your favorite greenhouse gas (Carbon Dioxide) into the atmosphere over that time. NASA’s contribution vs. the automobile’s contribution? 0.0003% for NASA. Meanwhile, the auto industry is responsible for about 50% of the greenhouse gas emission for the entire country. — Ethan Siegel, Starts With A Bang!

Of course, there are other space agencies, and now we have a growing number of private rocket companies, but compared with the daily carbon emissions we individuals and industry are responsible for, rocket launches aren’t exactly the Spawn of Satin.

The reasons why the exploration of space is important to mankind, I’ll save for another day (and I’ll be looking forward to that, with my finger hovering over the “moderate” button)…

11 thoughts on “Oh No! Rocket Launches Are Bad for the Environment? We’d Better Stay at Home Then”

  1. Excellent points. I usually also point out that the only reason we know as much as we do about climate change in the first place is because of the hundreds of satellites we have launched over the years. Almost all science satellites in space point back here, at Earth. The have given us tons of data we would otherwise be unable to collect and have had an indelible mark on climatological models and atmospheric science as we know it.

    Also the idea spending on space (less the 1% of the annual national budget in the US [1]) somehow takes away from working on social problems here on Earth is a classic case of a false dichotomy. We can do both.

    [1] Do the math: http://www.gpoaccess.gov/usbudget/fy08/browse.html

  2. In a related issue, there does seem to be some genuine concern for the environmental impact of SOPHIA, an infrared telescope born into the atmosphere aboard a converted 747 jet.

    When it becomes operational, it will fly a few times a week, using an entire plane load of jet fuel each flight. If you work out how much fuel SOFIA will use, each flight is only about one ten-thousandth of the USA’s daily jet fuel usage, a tiny percentage. But it still adds up to 3+ tons of CO2 emitted per flight.

    Even some of the staff astronomers have raised concerns or quit the project over this issue. See Professor Astronomy’s blog http://blog.professorastronomy.com/2008/12/principled-astronomers.html

  3. If we try to fix every problem humanity has, especially poverty, before we launch anything into space, we’ll never launch another rocket. About 80% of the planet lives on less than $10.00 a day and some 50% live on less than $2.50 a day. How exactly do you raise some 5,000,000,000 people out of poverty? How long would it take and when will we be allowed to do scientific research again? You know, the research that could yield a way to get these people cheap energy, running water and create jobs for them with some wise investing?

  4. The brutal truth is that majority of these “green” people who pretend that they care about the environment by complaining about rocket launches, they actually do nothing themselves to protect the Earth. Believe me or not, but that's how it is.

  5. i am doing a research project on he rocketships all these ads get my hopes up like this one and get me so down SO SO DOWN!!!!!!

  6. One reason I may respond unkindly to one of your articles is because you beg the question and your logic is totally self-serving. 1) you talk about how the collateral damage of the environmental impact of rocket launches is a price that we just need to pay for this endeavor but you dont defend the endeavor itself. The example here should be SpaceX. What exact usefulness is there to this launch? Will it be so Ashton Kutcher can tweet about getting his space on? What purpose does that serve? 2) you defend rocket launches by comparing a launch to aggregate fuel use by cars. In the world today, we are constantly looking to cut incremental usage, so throwing out a statistic like “its not that much” after not defending your base assumption that this launch is useful leads you to a pointless argument. You go nowhere.

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