could bezos and the billionaires space race help save the planet?

© Provided by The Telegraph space race

It’s rare for Prince William to inhabit the same atmosphere as Gil Scott-Heron. But the future heir’s tart response to Jeff Bezos flying William Shatner to space this week – “We need some of the world’s greatest brains and minds fixed on trying to repair this planet, not trying to find the next place to go and live,” the Duke of Cambridge said – had echoes of Scott-Heron’s influential 1970 spoken-word track, Whitey on the Moon.

Over clattering percussion, Scott-Heron pretty much nailed the disinterested shrug of people at the hard end of the world’s problems at seeing Neil Armstrong’s landmark 1969 moon walk: “A rat done bit my sister Nell, with Whitey on the moon. Her face and arms began to swell, and Whitey’s on the moon,” his languid vocals proclaim.

Certainly, at first sight, the regular transport of wealthy people into low Earth orbit – a prospect now closer than ever – seems like the answer to a question the planet wasn’t asking.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket burns kerosene and Virgin’s VSS Unity uses a solid carbon-based fuel, hydroxyl-terminated polybutadiene and liquid nitrous oxide. Which, Eloise Marais, associate professor of physical geography at University College London, estimates burn 200-300 tonnes of carbon dioxide per launch. Split between four or so passengers, this compares highly unfavourably with the one to three tonnes of carbon dioxide per passenger for long-haul flights. While there were only 114 rocket launches in the whole of 2020, Sir Richard Branson’s ambition alone is for 400 flights per year.

But might such forays have their uses for the whole of mankind after all?

Space travel and the environmental movement have been strange bedfellows ever since the Pioneer 1 satellite used the first practical solar panels in 1958. Satellites have been driving innovation in solar panels ever since, and have proven crucial in determining crop health, forest fires, glacier coverage, the spread of urban development and damage to the rainforests.

Indeed, space travel has been a rich source of new green tech. The hydrogen and fuel cell technologies invented to take Apollo astronauts into space are now touted as a clean, reliable (albeit achingly expensive) alternative to batteries that can power anything from aeroplanes, such as the Pathfinder and Helio prototypes, to warships. Home insulation – hello there, Insulate Britain – owes much to spacesuit design.

Meanwhile, NASA is a leader in green engineering. By necessity, all human space travel involves recycling practically everything – water, air and food – so the space agency has been responsible for breakthroughs in water filtration, waste water treatment and soil cleaning agents. It is also one of the world’s biggest researchers into the science of hydroponics – growing crops without using land resources.

“Space-based technologies and space-derived information are central to climate knowledge, science, monitoring and early warning,” says Nick Shave, chair of UKspace, the trade association of the British space industry. “In the future, new applications of satellite data, combined with satellite positioning and communications technologies, will help drive down carbon emissions as well as providing key capabilities required to manage the devastating effects of the climate emergency to countries and communities around the world.”

The link between the environment and space travel is even more far-out than that. Bill Anders, crew member of the Apollo 8 mission, became the first human to witness the Earth peeking over the Moon’s horizon in 1968. Anders had been snapping the Moon’s surface on a scouting mission for future landings when he took the photograph later known as Earthrise. That single snap is credited with inspiring the first Earth Day in 1970, about which Anders later said: “We came all this way to explore the Moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.”

California’s environmental movement of the early 1970s gave birth to the Whole Earth Catalogue, a compendium of product listings, how-to diagrams and educational ephemera intended for the back-to-the-land movement, which featured Earthrise on its first cover. Published quarterly in 1971 and sporadically thereafter, its biggest influence was on Silicon Valley: founders of Airbnb, Stripe and Facebook, early-internet architects including Larry Brilliant, Lee Felsenstein, Ted Nelson and Steve Jobs, described the Catalog as “Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along”.

This freak-power/billionaire crossover means that while SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy emits more CO2 in a few minutes than the average car would in more than two centuries, in 2019 it carried a NASA-funded test satellite known as the Green Propellant Infusion Mission, to replace the outrageously polluting and ferociously lethal hydrazine. The new hydroxyl ammonium nitrate fuel/oxidizer blend – called AF-M315E for short – can be carried around without wearing a hazmat suit, is more efficient and emits more water than CO2.

By comparison, Bezos’s rocket, Blue Origin, is powered by a mix of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, meaning its carbon footprint – in flight, if not in construction – is zero. Given Blue Origin’s reusable launch vehicle, the project’s biggest overall source of CO2 is likely to be the crew and passengers’ flights to its Texas launch site. Just don’t mention the CO2 given off by Amazon’s server farms…

And then there’s the real out-there thinking of Elon Musk. Musk has credited his drive to many things – including growing up in apartheid South Africa and leaving aged 17, rather than serve in what he called “a fascist army” – but the man’s absolute conviction that the Earth is doomed explains his unsettling desire to move to Mars.

“A lot of my motivation comes from looking at things that don’t work well and feeling a bit sad about how it would manifest in the future,” he has said. “If that would result in an unhappy future, then it makes me unhappy, so I want to fix it.”

Alongside the Tesla, the car that made electric vehicles cool at last, he’s proposed ‘Hyperloop’ high-speed transportation systems, using reduced pressure tubes to reach speeds around 600mph – which Branson has neatly whipped from under his nose with the all-electric Virgin Hyperloop’s first successful test earlier this year. Musk has put up $100 million for carbon capture technology, and given up on cryptocurrencies due to their voracious dependency on electricity.

could bezos and the billionaires space race help save the planet?

© Provided by The Telegraph Richard Branson’s vision for how Virgin Hyperloop could look, with a series of high-speed tubes that shuttle passengers - Virgin

The UK is clinging on to the edge of all this. British rocket maker Orbex is pioneering bio-propane fuel that chief executive Chris Larmour says can cut CO2 emissions by 90 per cent, compared with traditional launch fuel. “Climate change is real, and we don’t want to make it worse,” he explains.

After Brexit, the UK is no longer part of Galileo and EGNOS, the EU-owned satnav systems, but we’re hustling to get involved in its Copernicus Earth Observation programme, and we’ve still got a role in the soon-to-be carbon-neutral European Space Agency. “The UK has already taken a lead in committing to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050,” says Shave. “The next step should be properly investing in our space industry to help us become a world leader in action as well as words.”

If we start to dream of space again, perhaps we can start to get a genuinely global perspective. If we can solve problems down here by trying to put someone on the Moon, what could we achieve if we all got a chance to see Earth rise?

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