Tom Clyde: Virgin Galactic’s stock offering raises a question: Do we really need private space travel?
The business world was aflutter this week over the initial stock offering of Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson’s private space travel business. It’s one of several space tourism companies out there. Jeff Bezos, of Amazon fame, has a competing company called Blue Origin, and I think Elon Musk at Tesla is also working on the concept. Virgin Galactic is way out in front. They did a first test flight last February, and are preparing to send tourists into space within a few years.
The system is a little different from the NASA rocket launches we grew up watching. Instead of a giant rocket on a launch pad, the Virgin Galactic vehicle is launched from a special carbon fiber airplane, so it is partway up before the rocket shoots off. The rocket is reusable. It doesn’t actually go anywhere. It’s more like a space Ferris wheel ride than a rocket launch.
Branson said that demand will far exceed capacity, and that so far, he has deposits from 603 people willing to pay $250,000 to get shot up into space for a grand total of 90 minutes. For what it’s worth, the median price for a single-family home in the U.S. is about $275,000. So for the price of a house, you can buy a 90-minute “out-of-home luxury experience” which is the fastest growing segment in the luxury market. Apparently you can reach a point where you have enough $200,000 watches, and so what else is a rich guy supposed to do? Space travel is really the only thing left. Bonfire of the vanities.
I’m skeptical. How luxurious can it really be? You have to share the ride with five other people, who might be total strangers, and surely one of them will have a crying baby or emotional support ostrich with them.
Here on earth, California is on the inferno cycle of their multi-year drought, and once again the state is ablaze. The utilities are turning off the power to keep the power lines from sparking more fires, and so the most populous state in the nation is in the dark with flames licking at the door. Climate change is on display in a big way.
It would be very cool to take a 90-minute Virgin Galactic flight to look down on the flames consuming California. But somehow the connection between the future space flight and the future flames didn’t seem to figure into the discussion of private space travel. In fact, the most recent article on the environmental cost of private space flight I was able to find was from back in 2014. Apparently a NASA study concluded that each Virgin Galactic flight would consume twice as much energy in 90 minutes as the average American uses in a full year. And the average American uses a lot of energy. The carbon footprint is roughly equal to a flight from London to Singapore on a per-passenger basis. It’s enough to get a commanding view of a melting glacier, and provide the melt at the same time.
But all that energy consumption is divided among six space tourists, so, when you put it that way, it’s not so — well, no, it’s still completely unnecessary.
So far, we’ve been pretty ineffective in implementing meaningful ways to reduce carbon production. They exist, but we’re not willing to embrace them on a large scale. Banning plastic bags and plastic straws isn’t going to solve it. Electric buses plugged into a largely coal-fired electric generation system just moves the smokestack someplace far enough away that we don’t have to see it. But it’s still there. There’s progress here and there, but not on a massive scale. We don’t like change. I can live without a plastic straw, but there better be good snow coverage at the resorts by Thanksgiving when thousands of people will fly in to ski. Keep those snow guns roaring, and the jets fueled.
It’s hard to agree on ways to make reductions from what we are already doing. It shouldn’t be that hard to agree to quit inventing new ways to make things worse. When you are stuck at the bottom of a hole, the standard advice is, “Quit digging.” Is there really any justifiable reason for sending people with $250,000 to burn into space for purely recreational purposes? It’s even harder to justify bringing them back.
Given the $250,000 price tag, recreational space travel may never be a significant contributor to pollution or climate change. There just aren’t that many one-percenters interested in space travel. So it’s a comparative drop in the bucket. But who knows, they could be lined up like people in the parade line up Mount Everest. It really doesn’t matter. It serves no practical purpose other than acquiring the bragging rights to say you’ve been in space.
At least a plastic bag helps get the groceries home.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.
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With subpar snow coupled with the pandemic, it’s been a slog of a winter. So when columnist Amy Roberts got the opportunity to go heli-skiing, the words “when” and “yes” fell out of her mouth simultaneously.