Spaceflight, Jeffrey Bezos, and Scientifically-illiterate “Futurism”
The website Futurism published an article ridiculing Jeff Bezos’s dream of moving heavy industry to lower Earth orbit so that the planet below can blossom into a garden, or something. It’s an article that’s as much alarming as it is eye-rolling for its hysterical, partisan rhetoric, entitled “Jeff Bezos Says Now He’s Gonna Pollute Space, Too: Jeff Bezos wants to have his cake and eat it, too.”
This article is truly a gem of accurate coverage, from that apparently-serious headline to the final, tortured thought conflating a rocket company with a commerce company. Forget a race to space, it’s more like a race to say the most incorrect things possible. Savage, yes I know. Unfortunately there’s a common science & technology literacy problem, a lack of critical thinking, or just truth-apathetic activism as journalism in so much of the current coverage of spaceflight: and all this here from a publication calling itself “Futurism.” Let’s visit their main points.
In other words, after polluting the Earth, Bezos wants to pollute space too.
You can’t pollute space. Space is a vacuum; it is not an air. It can’t be polluted. Emissions dissipate into the void and are essentially lost forever, affecting no one.
Maybe charitably this is referring to the idea of space debris, but large factories in controlled, predictable orbits aren’t exactly the problem. Rather, it’s the tiny stuff flitting around without being tracked or potentially even recoverable which could cause great damage to a space station, craft, etc. So Bezo’s ambitions are not exactly “pollution” in that sense, either.
That’s a bit rich, of course, since Bezos only made it to space himself if you treat “space” as a very flexible concept.
People… I don’t know how to tell you this, but Bezos really went to space. There’s a definition for it, he met it, and the internet does not get to decide otherwise.
The Karman line is not a “marketing gimmick,” as a linked article in the story suggests in its own title. It is a physically meaningfully boundary defined jointly by approximately where the air becomes too thin for aerodynamic flight as opposed to orbital flight — whatever Futurism may proclaim in its superior knowledge — as well as for the different types of molecules within to mix well together as a gaseous fluid instead of stratifying according to weight. If anything, people in the industry seem to be of the opinion that the boundary should be lower: closer to the official US definition. Certainly no one who was physically up there would say something as foolish as “it’s space only if you treat ‘space’ as a very flexible concept.” In fact, Bezos and others are the ones treating space as a very rigorous, precise concept. Futurism and other popular media outlets are the ones displaying “flexibility” in their definitions: flexibility to make truth-bending rhetorical arguments to suit purposes of populist activism.
Futurism and others would be well-advised to cease these proclivities, lest they make themselves look like utterly uninformed journalists, or worse partisan actors masquerading as truth-tellers.
Of course, shuttling the ultra-wealthy high into the sky for a ten minute joyride is also quite destructive to the environment. (…) Moving all heavy industry into space could easily end up being an extremely wasteful process in itself. The simple act of moving materials up into orbit could come with its own colossal carbon footprint.
In fact, “shuttling the ultra-wealthy high into the sky for a ten-minute joyride” is not very destructive to the environment. For its fuel, Blue Origin’s New Shepard burns hydrogen mixed with oxygen in its BE-3 rocket engine combustion chamber: which produces no carbon emissions, as it becomes instead. While water vapor is a prolific greenhouse gas, it is much more inefficient than carbon dioxide and has a habit of being recycled back down to the ground via rain, where it does not contribute to global warming.
In general, carbon emissions are a red herring for the real issue people are upset over, billionaires, because the spaceflight industry is heading for mostly zero net carbon emissions among the major entities involved. Once SpaceX swaps in Starship for the Falcon rockets, the only major American rocket in use primarily burning a carbon-emitting propellant (RP-1 kerosene) will be the Atlas V: which should not play a very large role in the expansion to space, or otherwise launch very often.
Start with Starship. While its Raptor engines will burn methane, the carbon dioxide released in the combustion process would be ~1:1 offset by the carbon dioxide pulled out of the atmosphere by SpaceX to make the propellant in the first place. If one is skeptical that they’ll put in the time, money, and effort to make this happen (and/or are just generally cynical about Musk’s intentions), then one should remember that their overarching goal is to settle Mars. There, they’ll need that kind of methane fabrication technology to be developed and reliable so that rockets can fly back here from Mars — and it is much cheaper to develop, build, and test it here on Earth. Perhaps more warranting of skepticism is Blue Origin doing the same for the methane-burning New Glenn, which is coming within the next 2–3 years, but there are reasons for optimism. Bezos despite the article’s rhetoric does have a history of putting investment into climate change.
(Also, methane burned via combustion isn’t the same thing as releasing methane into the atmosphere and so damaging the ozone layer: that devastating familiar process brought to mind when methane is being used as fuel by a large, flying vehicle. It’s a different thing altogether. The combustion takes CH4 methane and O2 and makes CO2 carbon dioxide and H2O water, which do the things one would normally think of in the atmosphere with respect to the standard greenhouse effect.)
The rest of major American launch vehicles moving forward will be primarily using hydrogen mixed with oxygen just like Blue Origin. The United Launch Alliance (ULA, comprised of Boeing and Lockheed Martin) primarily will be flying the Delta IV Heavy instead of the aforementioned Atlas V. NASA will be flying the Space Launch System (SLS) when congressionally mandated, when they’re not just hiring SpaceX again, and the SLS burns the same hydrogen that the space shuttle did because its goal as a program was to reuse leftover shuttle components. It uses the exact same engines as the space shuttle and the exact same gargantuan fuel tank. Of more concern are the iconic side boosters flanking the fuel tank, which are very polluting. However, quick calculations done by Tim Dodd (the Everyday Astronaut) show that there’ll be about 3x more water vapor from the SLS than carbon dioxide. This makes sense operationally, as the boosters will only play a role in the initial part of the launch.
To be fair, there’s also the question of the other burgeoning startups. Virgin Galactic (and Orbit) burn dirty, though to be frank by their own design they’ll not be conducting anywhere near enough flights to make a real difference. Sorry Sir Richard, but the pitch while cool is operationally very limiting. The very promising upstart Rocket Lab out of New Zealand burns kerosene for its tiny Electron rocket, and will also do so for its medium-lift Neutron rocket. How much volume this amounts to is up in the air but it’s probably not going to be a significant segment of the industry. An even more ambiguous story is that of Relativity, since they haven’t even gotten to orbit yet; still their plan is to burn natural gas for the Terran 1 and Terran R launch vehicles. Finally, Firefly burns kerosene for its Alpha rocket, but also has not achieved orbit yet and its business future remains similarly uncertain. The common theme: potential wild cards, sure, but they probably won’t be relevant for a long time — and there’s no reason to think these startups (besides Virgin) won’t pivot to renewable propellant sources like SpaceX, Blue Origin, ULA, and for the most part NASA have to power future launches.
All this is to extensively say that Futurism has done a pretty terrible job of factually covering the recent space launches, suborbital though they may be, and dramatically overestimate their own expertise to fire off cheap outrage shots in the contemporary culture war. This is much like so many other popular media sources. Leave space out of your populist battles, as well as those who advocate and work everyday for it. They’re not your enemy, here.