The Environmental Case for Space

AMP Staff

When it comes to facing climate change, exploring and developing space might be just what the doctor ordered.

Read Time10 Minute, 48 Second

To most Americans, going to space is nothing more than a far-fetched dream,  something that can only be achieved by the incredibly rich or the incredibly smart. News reports reinforce the idea that space is for the elites: just look at the people who have pioneered the most well-known space companies. Jeff Bezos opened up a brand-new rocket factory in 2016 for his company Blue Origin. Elon Musk launched a Tesla into space in 2018 with SpaceX. Sir Richard Branson plans on making space tourism an option for those rich enough to afford it with Virgin Galactic.

Big money in space isn’t a new phenomenon. Nearly two decades ago, billionaire Dennis Tito became the first space tourist by paying the Russian Space Agency the equivalent of $20 million. The tycoon spent nearly eight days as a crew member of the International Space Station, conducting scientific experiments for his company. Since Tito’s landmark trip, the number of billionaires investing in space has only grown. Wall Street experts predict that by 2040, the space industry will reach a net worth of $1 trillion.

Space may attract the attention of the affluent, but it seems that the vast majority of people on Earth have more pressing concerns. The escalation of global warming in recent years has brought widespread hardship. The hottest four years on record were 2014-2018, and research from NASA shows that Earth’s cryosphere — its layer of frozen water, including polar caps and glaciers — is melting rapidly. Consequently, Earth’s oceans are rising and coastlines are disappearing at an alarming rate. Extreme weather events  such as severe hurricanes, blizzards, and droughts displace countless people every year, causing political unrest and chaos. When the worst drought in 500 years hit Syria between 2006-2011, it forced thousands of Syrians from rural settlements into the cities. Eventually, uprisings linked to drought led to the Syrian Civil War, a conflict that has taken nearly half a million lives.

The pressing nature of climate change begs an important question: Why would billionaires pour so much money into space exploration, an industry that seems so trivial to most people’s lives, when they could be investing it in saving our planet? Furthermore, why do tax dollars taken from the pockets of struggling civilians go towards agencies like NASA and the European Space Agency?

Critics of the public and private space industry often assume that space exploration and global sustainability are two completely separate (and possibly even opposing) goals. But what if this assumption is wrong —  what if they are not so different after all? If done properly, space exploration and environmentalism actually go hand-in-hand. In fact, space exploration is perhaps the best long-term solution to many of our earthly problems, including climate change.

Science fiction movies often give the impression that space ventures should be for the purpose of setting up human colonies. After all, if Earth becomes uninhabitable, what will our species do? However, this myth does not reflect the broad possibilities space exploration and development offers. Settling a planet is proving to be more difficult than we originally thought; Earth, in its capacity to support human life, is truly a miracle. Thus, the focus of development in space shouldn’t be to give humans a Planet B, but to preserve and protect the only life-sustaining planet we have.

In his 2018 Ted Talk titled “Manufacturing in Space Could Save Life on Earth,” space entrepreneur James Orsulak proposed that in the far future, resources from asteroid mining could enable us to move manufacturing and other heavy industries to near-earth orbit, zoning Earth as a purely residential and agricultural space. Currently, industrial activity is one of the leading factors behind climate change. It makes up an estimated 22% of the world’s carbon emissions alone. Although technological innovations can help to reduce our industrial carbon footprint, the only way to remove it completely is to move industrial activity outside of Earth’s atmosphere.

Moving manufacturing to outer space may seem like a good idea in theory, but the high cost of transporting materials to and from Earth complicates the matter. Orsulak and other space innovators have a solution in mind: asteroid mining. The founders of the company Planetary Resources argue that once we get past the initial cost barrier of setting up mining infrastructure on asteroids and the Moon, the cost of traveling to space will decrease by up to 95%. Scientists have recently discovered large quantities of frozen water and other materials on these bodies, which can be converted into rocket fuel. Both SpaceX and Blue Origin have also been developing multi-use rockets which do not need to be discarded after their initial launches. Since 2017, the former has successfully reused 22 rocket boosters in various missions.

In a few decades, these improvements in rocket technology and the rise of outer-space mining mean that Orsulak’s idea could become economically feasible. Although Planetary Resources was acquired by ConsenSys in 2018, the dream of outer-space mining and manufacturing lives on. Planetary Resources was ahead of its time; it failed to bring in enough investors due to limits in existing architecture on the Moon and in near-Earth orbit. In the next decade, however, these limits will be lifted. The Artemis program driven by NASA intends to send men and women to the Moon again by 2024, building novel sustainable architecture in and around the Moon. Such architecture, including a new space station called the Lunar Gateway, will support missions to Mars and lay the groundwork for future exploration and development.

Even with the current cost of manufacturing in space, some companies are already experimenting with it. In 2014, an innovative company called Made in Space manufactured the first object in space via 3D printing. Through subsequent experiments, they have discovered that microgravity can actually increase the efficiency of the manufacturing process and the purity of structures and materials composed in space. Not only can relocating industrial facilities to near-earth orbit reduce our carbon footprint, it can also provide business with legitimate advantages over traditional Earth-based industries.

Building more facilities in space also brings about an inevitable increase in outer space monitoring capabilities, which could further help to diagnose and combat climate change. Much of our current evidence for climate change comes from satellites controlled by institutions like NASA. Satellites and probes can even be used to detect extra-planetary events that may affect life on Earth. Consider solar flares, bursts of intense radiation which have the capability to cause geomagnetic storms. If an intense solar storm were to take us by surprise, it could overwhelm Earth’s power grids and wipe out many of the technological networks that humans rely on in the modern world. The more information we have about our planet, the sun, and other celestial bodies in the solar system, the more efficient and effective our adaptations can be.

Manufacturing and monitoring in space present demonstrable, direct benefits to humanity, but another aspect of space exploration which should also be taken into consideration is the indirect impact of scientific and technological developments. Space exploration presents many unique challenges that require creativity and teamwork to solve. In many instances, these challenges are also present on Earth. 

Take water conservation, for example. When NASA began planning human spaceflight, the Johnson Space Center directed engineers to design water purifiers which were lightweight, easy to use, required little power, and which would purify the urine of astronauts. This process evolved further when the International Space Station was built to house astronauts for months at a time. It resulted in the creation of the Water Recovery System, which reclaims wastewater with remarkable efficiency. 

Such technology tends to have a trickle-down effect. As NASA poured more resources into learning about the water purification process, scientists gained knowledge that could be applied on Earth as well. As the human population grows, so does the scarcity of freshwater. Each year, over 1.1 billion people lack adequate access to this vital life-sustaining resource. Given that the Global Water Forum projects water demand to increase by 55% between 2000 and 2050, the importance of continuing to develop water purification technology cannot be understated. Another topic of interest to both space scientists and environmental activists is sustainable agriculture. Currently, agriculture uses 70% of Earth’s accessible freshwater, often very inefficiently. In order to travel to Mars, scientists and engineers are developing ideas for water-efficient agriculture so that colonies can survive without shipments from Earth. Both environmentalists and space scientists are investigating the same questions with different applications, but the research they are doing has great cross-disciplinary relevance. 

The extreme requirements for survival in outer space make it a perfect laboratory to test out concepts and technologies that could also prove useful on Earth. Many of the technologies we use in daily life actually were invented for unrelated purposes in space — they range from the ballpoint pen to LASIK eye surgery to solar cells to even cell phone cameras. These examples show that investments in science and technology often bring unexpected benefits to people on Earth. 

For all the benefits space exploration and development has brought humankind, it’s still important to remember that science and technology has a dual nature. If we are not careful, the very tools we derive so much utility from can be used for our destruction. It’s important to know that space exploration ought to be considered as a solution to environmentalism, but it’s also important to be environmentally-conscious stewards of that very industry. Near-earth orbit shares the same problems that other global common-pool resources have: nobody wants the responsibility of cleaning them up. 

The Earth’s ocean is a prime example of a common-pool resource abused by its beneficiaries. It is profitable for a single country to dump its trash in the ocean, even if that action has a net negative impact on the ocean as a whole. That is how we end up with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a mass of trash over double the size of Texas. By the time the issue becomes severe enough that it affects individual countries, it is often too late or extremely costly to find a solution. 

A similar situation is well on its way to taking place in Earth’s orbit. Orbital debris litters the area — remnants of old satellites, launch vehicles, and other materials have begun to pose a hazard for future space-faring parties. If the debris becomes too dense, it will eventually be impossible for spacecrafts to leave Earth without collision. In effect, humans will have trapped ourselves on this planet. Simple “solutions” like blowing up old satellites (ahem, China) can make the situation worse and end up creating more debris. One country’s destructive or misinformed actions can prove disastrous for everyone. Space debris, like ocean debris, is a problem the global community must come together to solve before it destroys such a valuable resource. 

Another point is vital to address —  just because space exploration can be a long-term solution to environmental problems on Earth does not mean that humans should compromise the environment in the short-term in pursuit of that goal. Reducing the carbon footprint from industry won’t do anything if it is replaced by the carbon footprint of rocket fuel. That’s why we must invest in learning how to make space travel more environmentally-friendly. Although space exploration is in the process of being taken over by private corporations, it is imperative that we increase funding for public actors in the industry like NASA, which work to find ways to help the space industry serve citizens. Currently, NASA is working on a variety of important projects dedicated to improving sustainability of space travel. One such project tests a new fuel base called AF-M315E, which is both cleaner and more efficient than traditional hydrazine-based fuel. 

Human expansion into space and protection of the environment need not be contradictory goals. Rather, they can and should be used to support each other. The opportunity cost of waiting to use resources in space could hurt Earth in the long-term as the human population continues to grow in a limited space. Likewise, developing space without regard for the environment could sabotage both our planet and our ability to travel outside of Earth in the future. If there is one thing we have learned from all of our voyages into the depths of space, it is that our planet truly is one of a kind:  beautiful, unique, fragile, and deserving of our protection.


Cari Reinert (freshman | international political economy)

Cari aspires to be Padmé Amidala, minus the toxic love life. Still doesn’t have her license because her family says she’s ‘too spacey’.

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