The New Space Race: Space Exploration or Space Exploitation

 

This illustration depicts NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket in the Block 1B cargo configuration at launch.
This illustration depicts NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket in the Block 1B cargo configuration at launch. Source: NASA.gov

Over the summer there were a series of rocket launches. Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk
would have you believe that those launches were in furtherance of human
exploration and ultimately essential to the survival of the human race. Nothing
could be further from the truth. No sooner had the most recent SpaceX launch been
successfully completed than Musk began talking about building launch vehicles
specifically for space tourism. In essence, he revealed his true and far less altruistic
intentions of profiteering off what would essentially be a fad.

There were some strange overreactions to recent launches that led to some pretty
sensation claims about Musk and Bezos. One of which was the idea that the two of
them wanted to set up their own fiefdoms in space while leaving a destroyed Earth
in their wake. There is one reason why this is absurd: Space.

Space is dangerous. Mars is dangerous. On its best day, Mars has less than half the
light of Earth. It has a third of its gravity and the thin air would make a person’s
blood literally boil at sea level. In order to survive the radiation and poisonous
atmosphere, humans would have to live underground. Earth, on its worse days,
even amidst the worst effects of climate change, would be a paradise in comparison.
It would be far easier and cheaper for these billionaires to use their considerable
resources to ensure their own comfort and access to the world’s resources than
it would be to try and make Mars into something similar. There is simply no comparison.

Around the same time as these wild assertions about billionaires setting up
billionaire colonies on Mars, Elon Musk insisted that humans needed to become a
multi-planet species if we were to survive. This is correct to a degree, but like much
of what Musk says, is very misleading. While it’s true that colonizing other planets
will increase the likelihood of long-term human survival as a species, it completely
omits the impact of such endeavors on the human population on Earth and the
planet itself.

Musks current “Starship” program is a long haul spacecraft designed to take up 100
people to Mars at a time. My expectation is that this is something he would roll out
after the first successful missions an initial colony is set up on Mars.
According to SpaceX, each of these crafts would have a terrestrial launch and in the
process would consume 6.8 million pounds of fuel. The precise type of fuel is still up
for debate but the current Falcon 9 uses kerosene. Musk has said that he might use
methane. He has also said that in order for humans to survive, we have to put a lot of
people on other planets. 100 people at a time apparently. Those 6.8 million pounds
of methane would produce 2,683 metric tons of CO2 per launch and 2,199 metric
tons of water vapor.

That is ten times the current amount of CO2 per Falcon launch. Let’s not forget,
the primary carbon emission driving climate change is CO2. If we take this number
and multiply it by the number of flights necessary to put “lots of people on other planets”, or more importantly, return a profit, it isn’t hard to imagine that there would be hundreds of flights like
this every year. Even rounding down and saying 100 flights per year, which would
put 10,000 people on Mars annually, would create 268,000 metric tons of CO2 per
launch. Granted, this is small potatoes compared to the 950 million tons of
CO2 produced by coal in the US every year. But these launch estimates are
on the low side. And if the objective is to ultimately save humanity, it seems that
putting so much carbon into the atmosphere is heading in the wrong direction.

It’s important to note that 2200 metric tons of those emissions is water. Isn’t water
an essential component of life on Earth? Yes, water is generally benign, when it rains
or when it’s coming out of a faucet, or drifting across the sky in the form of vapor.
But dispersed in the upper atmosphere it is actually quite harmful and its effects,
along with CO2 are additive. It can take years for the impact of that H20 to diminish.
This is just one company. What happens when Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, Orbital
ATK, and various state actors start their own programs? Climate change will
accelerate and the environment will die in a blaze of rocket exhaust and techno-
nationalist chest-thumping.

You also have to contend with the environmental impacts of your now mature space
tourism industry by the time “Starship” and other Mars launch programs are ready
to fly. The current rate of emissions from rocket launches is increasing by 5.6% per
year. Currently, an international plane flight produces about 3 tons of CO2 per
passenger. One Falcon 9 rocket produces about 300 tons of CO2 and that’s just with
four people.

If Musk were to make good on his desire to create another vehicle, specifically for
space tourism, you could be looking at something the size of “Starship”. In order for
the economics to work, and to make a brief spaceflight attractive and accessible to
even just the world’s wealthy, you would need to send them up in something that
size and you would probably want to send more than one up per day. By the time a
Mars colonization and population effort is underway, you could have a dozen daily
tourist trips, expending a total of 32,000 tons of CO2 per day.
We can’t consider Musk’s desire to make humanity a multi-planet species in a
vacuum. We have to balance the environmental risks against the likelihood of an
extinction-level event. The specter of war is ubiquitous among humans and that
potential exists no matter where we go. But it isn’t something we can practically
consider for the purposes of this argument. The possibility of creating an
extinction-level event through war is simply unknown.

The only currently known possibility is an asteroid strike. And the next nearest pass
of an asteroid to Earth is Apophis which will pass dangerously close to Earth in
2068 and again in 2105. NASA calculates that this asteroid has a 1 in 110,000 chance
of striking Earth and a cumulative 1 in 150,000 chance of hitting us between now
and 2105. That’s a .001% chance of an extinction-sized asteroid hitting Earth in the
next century. Weigh that possibility against the certainty that increased manmade
emissions will accelerate the destruction of our environment.

Last summer, in a fit of post-flight euphoria, Jeff Bezos proclaimed that moving all
industry to space would mitigate effects to the environment. My first thought upon
hearing this was that Bezos was trying to “out Musk” Musk. He even went as far as to
make a similarly specious claim about mitigating the impact of industry by putting
factories in space. Let’s look at some of the facts about building industry in space.
Like a Mars colony, a space factory would require materials, infrastructure, and
labor to operate.

The ISS is 350 feet long and it took 10 years to build. Imagine building something a
thousand times that size with complex manufacturing machinery- machinery that
would have to operate in microgravity. All of these materials would need to be
transported via rocket into orbit. Possibly thousands of launches would be
necessary to do this. Going back to the previous segment regarding human
population of Mars, you would be facing a similar environmental problem.
Then you have labor. Assuming that the factory would not be staffed entirely by
robots, you would need to have some human presence in order to ensure the
smooth operation of the facility. These humans would need to be trained to do their
jobs in zero gravity and they would need to rotate back to Earth every 6 months or
suffer permanent health effects.

What concerns me more than the environmental damage is Bezos propensity
for union-busting and intentional creation of toxic work environments.
Enforcing labor laws and best labor practices here on Earth is a challenge on
a good day. How would those same laws be enforced in orbit?
Whose jurisdiction does low earth orbit fall under?

More recently, Bezos has floated the idea of creating “factory towns”. This is
absurd because there are already a lot of factory towns and many of them are
economically depressed because the factories closed. But if you look at the similar
“mining town” model you will see that it isn’t a very good deal for the workers.
Mining corporations set up towns around their mines. They provided housing which
the workers had to pay rent to live in and they provided a mercantile or store which
the workers had to pay to shop in.

At first glance, that sounds like an equitable deal. However, the cost of rent, food, and
utilities was often exorbitant. Often at the end of a pay period, miners had very little
money left for themselves. Going to the nearest town to shop usually meant long
drives and not everyone had access to a vehicle. This practice was used to profit
from workers and simultaneously exert control over them to prevent unionizing or
strikes.

What would prevent Bezos from doing the same? An orbital factory would be ideal
for a mine or factory town model. The workers would have to live in the factory, or
in a module connected to it. The factory itself would have limited power, food, and
water. The climate could easily be controlled from Earth. Which is not to say that
Bezos would murder his space employees, but certainly, he isn’t above using any of
the above factors to incentivize his workforce. A 2-degree shift in temperature in a
giant orbital factory could mean the difference between comfort and discomfort.
Load shedding power supply under the guise of conservation when workers are
trying to make calls home, or use entertainment services. And these entertainment
services likely wouldn’t be free.

All of these factors aside, there is the simple financial and logistical feasibility of
such an undertaking. There are no concrete figures for the costs of a Blue Origin
launch, but let’s assume that they are commensurate with SpaceX, about 62 million
dollars. This number could be much higher because a) Blue Origin does not reuse
any part of its vehicles, and b) the current information seems to be conflating launch
costs with construction costs and it’s difficult to know if they are one in the same.

As stated previously the International Space Stations took ten years and 30 launches
to assemble and as I pointed out, a factory in space would be a thousand times
larger. Since spaceflight is not currently scalable, meaning, the amount of materials
you could transport at any one time is fixed, you would need to make 30,000 flights
to construct a factory or create a cargo craft specifically for materials transport.
Which would just be fewer flights with roughly the same environmental impact.
With regards to the science, you just can’t get around the amount of fuel necessary
to generate sufficient thrust to orbit a vehicle with a specific weight. NASA engineers
think and talk about these things in terms of pounds.

There is one other alternative, which I will suggest here. Far be it from me to help
greedy and self-exalting tech bros, but the environment is also at stake here. Rather
than making disposable rocket launch vehicles and cargo transports, each
component of the vehicle intended to achieve orbit would be taken apart and used
in the construction of the actual factory. Instead of just transporting the materials,
the vehicle would be part of the materials and would be folded into the design of the
factory. Even if you could find a way to reduce the number of launches by a factor of ten (you
can’t) that’s still 3,000 launches. Likely you would need a similar amount and type of
fuel as a Space Shuttle launch and possibly more. But let’s look at the environmental

cost of that. The shuttle produces far less CO2, about 440 metric tons per launch.
However, it produces 980 metric tons of water vapor, 250 tons of inorganic
chlorine, and 250 tons of alumina. Over the same period of time as it took to
construct the International Space Station, ten years, that would be 300 launched per year or almost one every day. The total cost of that would be 186 billion dollars.
This number assumes ten years of smooth operations. Jeff Bezos at his current worth could absorb this cost and still have seven billion dollars left over to be rich with. But since most of his value is in Amazon stock, he would need to sell his stock or leverage it in massive loans for an undertaking such of this size.

Here is the part that everyone is missing: When Bezos mentioned the idea of space
factories, he didn’t mean he should pay for it. He meant we should pay for it. He
wants the taxpayers to subsidize his little space capitalist adventure. And why not?
We’ve already made him fantastically rich with billions of dollars in subsidies. And
true to the mercantilist model, if you want clean air and water, then we should have
to pay for it. Or more accurately if we want him to stop polluting our air and water,
we should have to pay him to stop.

The idea of exporting industry to space for environmental purposes is an argument
made in bad faith and here is why. The top three contributors to greenhouse
emissions do not lend themselves to exportation. The number one cause of carbon
emissions in the world is power generation. The United States produces 950 million
tons of carbon from coal-burning alone. Energy production across sectors is
responsible for 72% of all greenhouse emissions. Next would be agriculture at 11%
and #3 is a tie between deforestation and industry at 6%. Energy production cannot
be exported to space. And neither can agriculture. Deforestation is a uniquely
terrestrial problem.

You could offset the deforestation by exporting industry to space but likely that
would be negated by the thousands, if not millions, of launches necessary to
construct sufficient manufacturing capacity completely neutralize emissions from
existing industrial sources. The statement was not only a bad faith one, it was poorly
thought out. The idea of exporting jobs, especially for the purposes of mitigating
carbon emissions, is simply not feasible on any level.

Believe it or not, I am actually in favor of space exploration and scientific
understanding. I founded Fresh Pulp Magazine with the specific mission of increasing
science literacy among Black and other marginalized communities. But I also want
people to think critically about the cost of these endeavors to humanity and the
planet. You can’t save humanity by destroying it. And Musk’s assertion, no matter
how altruistic it sounds, is just window dressing for an underlying profit motive.

My greatest fear isn’t that we won’t explore space. It’s that we will. We will take all
of the vitriol, selfishness, bigotry, racism, and white supremacy into space with us.
There isn’t some futuristic utopia waiting for us out there. Whatever is out there is
whatever we bring with us. Scientific understanding and space exploration should
be about knowledge, understanding of our universe, and understanding of self. It
shouldn’t be about rampant and unrestrained profiteering. So this is what I
propose.

The US government should immediately stop handing over publicly funded
intellectual property to corporations. The entire tech industry is built upon
infrastructure and publicly-funded technological advancements yet they have been
permitted to profit at the expense of the public. On top of which, these corporations
are frequently given tax breaks and subsidies, again, at the expense of the public.
Every square inch of the SpaceX and Blue Origin programs are built upon technology
and designs created with taxpayer funds.

If we allow it, these corporations will continue to exploit the public on Mars or in
orbit over our own planet. Starting now, corporations who wish to be beneficiaries
of publicly funded innovations should be required to adhere to very strict
guidelines for its use. Contractually, these same entities should be bound to a set of
regulations regardless of which planet they are operating on. All innovations arising
from the initial technological innovations should also pass immediately into the
public domain. Finally, spaceflight should be restricted. And through taxpayer-funded
research cleaner and more innovative methods of launching rockets should
be implemented. At the very least, space exploration, for environmental and
philosophical reasons, should wait until we have our own house in order.

The governments of the world should form an official body that outlines every
aspect of space exploration, from labor and wages, safety guidelines to criminal and
civil liability. There should also be an enforcement arm of this body. Inspectors
whose job it is to investigate industrials accidents, working conditions, and even
criminal acts should be commissioned to carry out these duties. Any corporation
that fails to cooperate should simply be barred from access to these technologies
and from operating on Earth or space. Even as most of us suffer through a
once-in-a-generation pandemic, Musk, and Bezos swap places as the richest men on Earth.

Our governments treat us with indifference at best and with contempt at worst. The
U.S. government has given corporations trillions of dollars in pandemic relief while
only giving taxpaying citizens a pittance in the form of unemployment benefits. The
point is that if government continues to serve only the interest of corporations
moving forward then the future of space exploration is bleak. It is better to seize
control of our democracies now so as to prevent the exportation of our baser
instincts to the stars.

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Sources:

“How the billionaire space race could be one giant leap for pollution” (The Guardian 7/19/21)
“How much do rockets pollute?” (Everyday Astronaut 3/20/2021)
Global Emissions Report (Center for Climate and Energy Solutions)

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