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The Billionaire Space Race: Should We Be Worried?

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NASA and SpaceX launched the first all-private space crew, Axiom-1, on April 8. The team included three wealthy businessmen and one astronaut. Whilst this marks one small step for the future of commercial space travel, it could also mark one giant leap backward for mankind. 

In the Oscar-nominated Netflix film, “Don’t Look Up,” a comet heads towards Earth and is set to destroy humanity. When billionaire CEO Peter Isherwell discovers that the raw materials of the comet are worth trillions of dollars, he calls off the launch meant to destroy the comet. When Isherwell’s own attempt to destroy the comet fails, he and a handful of global elites board a spaceship in hopes of fleeing Earth and finding life on another planet. While humorously dark and satirical, the story of Isherwell’s character is not entirely dissimilar from the numerous billionaires hoping to tap into the lucrative commercial venture of space.

In 2019, NASA was called upon to expand commercial modules onboard the International Space Station (ISS), as it was recently announced that the station is expected to retire in 2031. In offloading these human space missions to private companies, NASA hopes that the increased competition between private companies will accelerate the time we reach commercial space travel. 

“We’re taking commercial business off the face of the Earth and putting it up in Space,” NASA administrator Bill Nelson said before the Axiom-1 launch on Friday. 

This ambition for future space travel draws into question “who” will be able to go. The three billionaires who boarded Axiom-1 — Larry Connor, Mark Pathy and Eyten Stibbe — each paid a sum of $55 million. While they are up there to conduct research during their stay in the ISS, this money could have also been used to fund important and life-saving research on Earth. 

Dr. Wendy Whitman Cobb, an Air Force political scientist for space argues that the privatization of space is for the better, stating that it enables NASA to pursue future projects like starting moon or Mars colonies and exploring deeper space.

“The more ‘normal’ people we see fly into space, more of the public will see this as possible and be excited by it,” Cobb said in an interview with the New York Times. 

Yet, with Elon Musk valuing space travel at between $100,000-$500,000, it is hard to see that so-called “normal people” will ever be able to afford this luxury experience. In an interview with TED Creator Chris Anderson, Musk proposed that space travel can be affordable for anyone if people are willing to “work and save up” for it.

“If moving to Mars costs, for argument’s sake, $100,000, then I think almost anyone can work and save up and eventually have $100,000 and be able to go to Mars if they want,” Musk said.

With the median income in the United States standing at $67,521 in the 2020 census, the CEO of SpaceX has underestimated the difficulty of saving $100,000, let alone for people in developing nations. Perhaps the future of commercial space travel appears more like a luxury hobby for the elite millionaires of the world rather than a goal for the average person. Somehow, we are reminded of that in the final scene in “Don’t Look Up” where Isherwell and his high society associates flee a dying planet. 

“Don’t Look Up” is an allegory for climate change and our lack of action to prevent it. If space travel becomes commercialized, the emissions produced by rockets will significantly contribute to making climate change irreversible. It is estimated that the emissions per passenger will be around 100 times that of a long-haul flight. For some scientists, this is a worrying statistic considering some companies’ ambitions to fly tourists to space several times a day. Without finding a means of eliminating the carbon footprint of rockets, they are as much of a vehicle for finding new life in space as they are for destroying life on Earth. 

The emissions produced by rockets also affect the Earth’s atmosphere in a way that no other carbon-fuelled technologies might. The use of kerosene to power rockets produces a significant amount of soot, a type of black carbon emission. When this is released into the middle and upper atmospheres, the soot has a warming effect 500 times greater than when it is closer to the Earth’s surface. This is because there are few clouds competing with the soot to absorb the sun’s rays. If rocket launches start to become far more frequent in the future, the effect of these emissions could substantially hinder the Earth’s ability to repair its ozone layer. 

With the move towards commercialized space travel accelerating, so is the speed of global warming. Private companies like SpaceX must conduct further research to assess the ecological impact of their rockets before further expanding their commercial space flights. 

Whilst the thought of flights to space remains an exciting prospect, the affordability and environmental effects of commercialized space travel should be kept firmly on the minds of the billionaires looking to invest. 

Thomas Brierly is an Opinion intern for the 2022 spring Quarter. He can be reached at