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Space: New frontier for climate change & commodification, or conservation? (commentary)

  • After its Cold War, militaristic origins, space exploration became an arena for scientific inquiry where courageous people have pushed the bounds of science and knowledge of our planet.
  • Today’s privatization and commodification of space travel dilute this mission and will also likely cause ozone depletion and increased climate change, through the deposition of things like black carbon in the atmosphere.
  • “Space is too important of an arena for science, humanity and the environmental movement to allow it to become a playground for competing billionaires,” a new op-ed argues: without robust regulation, these forces will push us away from these values of scientific research and humanitarian benefit and toward negative environmental outcomes.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

April 27, 2022 marked another step forward for space exploration as the private company SpaceX owned by Elon Musk sent a crew of four to the International Space Station. Aboard this flight was astronaut and scientist, Dr. Jessica Watkins, who became the first black woman to embark on a long-term space mission. This historic launch came two days after SpaceX successfully completed a space tourism flight and just under a month after Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin’s fourth successful space tourism mission.

These launches highlight an interesting dichotomy that is beginning to emerge in space exploration, as we see highly trained scientists and researchers juxtaposed with high paying billionaires, each boarding the same rockets and jettisoning into space. One group for research, another for recreation. Yet with a combined total of 11 manned launches between the two companies, 5 for NASA and 6 privately chartered, recreation seems to be winning out.

I fear that without more robust policy and regulation, the privatization and commodification of space travel will push us away from the past values held dear by generations of astronauts and space agencies focused on scientific research and humanitarian benefits. I also argue that space exploration is a conservation and governance issue that could have dire consequences if not promptly addressed. Therefore, conservation professionals should be involved in the decision-making process to establish policies that govern and guide future space exploration for the benefit of our environment and humanity as a whole.

Launch of a SpaceX rocket, depositing compounds like black carbon in the atmosphere, which are linked to climate change. Image via SpaceX.

Space exploration in the United States was sparked in response to the USSR’s launch of Sputnik 1 in October of 1957. Driven by competition between the two nations, landmarks in spaceflight came to symbolize the tenacity, courage, and strength of each nation and inherently its people. This space race was characterized by immense technological advancements over a short period of time, culminating in a manned spacecraft reaching the surface of the moon and Neil Armstrong’s historic first steps on July 20, 1969.

Space exploration became an arena for inquisitive minds and courageous people to push the bounds of our knowledge and experiment in environments never experienced before. It became a source of scientific discovery, technological advancement and international cooperation through the establishment of the International Space Station. Additionally, as astronauts gazed fondly back on the image of our colorful, living blue marble suspended against the vast, dark, emptiness of the surrounding cosmos, the isolation and precious fragility of our only home became immediately apparent. Deeply entwined in the history of space travel is a budding sense of responsibility for our planet, laying the foundations and providing technologies to guide future environmental movements.

Historically, NASA, the agency that decided the objectives and direction of space exploration in the United States, had a responsibility to work in the interests of the American people, as it was an entity of a democratically-elected government. From a decision-making standpoint, active participants in – and influencers of – space exploration were involved based on their expertise in relevant scientific fields.

With these experts at the helm, spaceflight has led to technological advances and scientific discoveries throughout the duration of the space program that have had profoundly beneficial impacts on all of society. For example, remote sensing technology using satellite data predicts drought conditions and seasonal food insecurity across the globe, informing agricultural decisions and helping to mitigate humanitarian crises. This same technology that helps predict droughts has also allowed us to monitor environmental health, first identifying the hole in the ozone layer over the South Pole and later providing current data on climate change.

With thousands of private companies investing in space technology and the commodification of space a real possibility – if not happening already – space exploration could be dramatically altered, and the direction of it decided by a few wealthy individuals working in the interest of personal economic gain. Additionally, there will be an inherent wealth barrier in accessing this theoretical decision-making table and only certain actors with enough financial capital will be able to participate regardless of relevant knowledge or expertise.

Commodification in any sector ultimately causes economic value to supersede cultural value, which I argue leads to overconsumption of the commodity and profitability to float to the top of the list of priorities, without regard to historic values. This could lead to a shifting of focus away from scientific advancement for the good of humanity and the environment and towards that of economic profitability and gain. Without revisions to existing policies governing spaceflight and exploration, these factors combined will produce misguided initiatives that lack the knowledge and foresight to balance tradeoffs, leading to undesirable and inequitable outcomes that favor a select few.

See related: Esri co-founder Jack Dangermond: ‘People and planet are inextricably linked

Earth seen from space. Image via Pexels.
Earth seen from space. Image via Pexels.

Although benefits of the privatization of space flight exist, such as increased access to funding and competition that leads to more efficient technologies and innovation, higher demand and increased frequency of space flights can have detrimental effects on local ecosystems. According to researchers, space launches contribute to local ecosystem toxicity with fuel system byproducts causing the death of small shrubs and trees as well as acidification of local waterways.

These byproducts of space travel can also contribute to ozone depletion and climate change through the deposition of aluminum compounds and black carbon. Although these effects are shown to dissipate with sufficient time, increases in the frequency of launches may compound their individual impact and result in negative environmental outcomes. Further research is needed to better quantify this cumulative effect so it can be explicitly accounted for in the environmental impact assessment required by NEPA for commercial space transportation licensing. Additionally, as the governing body over space flight, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) should incorporate a licensing limit based on a determined threshold from this future research.

Lastly, with the introduction of resource extraction from other celestial bodies such as asteroids, comets, and other planets, and a private citizen’s right to any space resource obtained themselves, we enter a whole new frontier in governance and environmental conservation. What we perceive to be a natural ecosystem needs to be assessed and redefined to encompass these extraterrestrial environments.

This leads to an opportunity in conservation to extend the management of natural resources beyond the borders of our planet. Just as NEPA requires federal agencies to perform environmental impact assessments, policies developed by the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) should be expanded upon and used as regulatory guidelines for future space exploration and extraterrestrial resource extraction, to prevent contamination and ensure the protection of our biosphere as well as the environmental integrity of other planetary bodies.

Space is too important of an arena for science, humanity and the environmental movement to allow it to become a playground for competing billionaires. First and foremost, space exploration needs to be recognized as an emerging conservation and equity issue so that it can be properly addressed. Start the conversation now. Push for policy review and revision now so that future generations of astronauts retain their connection to scientific discovery and environmentalism, as they explore further into our cosmos.


Evan Briscoe served as a Peace Corps volunteer and is currently pursuing a Masters in Conservation Leadership at Colorado State University.

See related: An interview with the CEO of Esri, which developed tools like ArcGIS that have revolutionized conservation and environmental planning, management and policymaking:

Esri co-founder Jack Dangermond: ‘People and planet are inextricably linked’

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