Each individual trip could have more of an impact than your typical flight. Like full-on trips to space, chemicals used by ships at high altitudes may have a more significant impact on the environment than those exhausted at lower altitudes, Fawkes said.
In the case of space tourism to the ISS, NASA puts the responsibility for emissions onto the companies running the trips. “NASA provides the destination and capabilities, but the private companies responsible for the launches must work within the appropriate regulatory framework to achieve compliance,” Karen Northon of NASA told Digital Trends. SpaceX and Boeing, which will be running tourists’ trips to space, did not respond to our request for comment.
Even with large growth in suborbital and orbital tourist flights in the future, projections of carbon emissions are still “tiny compared to aviation,” Fawkes said. “This is not, however, to say that there is no problem. Like all businesses now, space tourism operators should address emissions and all aspects of sustainability. It would be better if they did that right from the beginning.”
Environmental activists compare the issues around private space launches to those around regular tourism – in that the environmental costs apply to everyone but the benefits accrue to only a few. Only the most elite of the elite will ever have the chance to go to space. “Space exploration is valuable,” said Mahir Ilgaz, associate director of research at the climate change action group 350, and offering tourist trips to the ISS “is one way of raising funds. But governments shouldn’t fundraise by encouraging damaging practices.”
The potential benefits of private space missions, such an instilling an interest in science and exploration, may not be worth the harm being done to the planet now. Environmentalists would rather focus on the steps that need to be taken to reduce climate change in all areas of life. “When your house is on fire, you have to put out the fire first,” Ilgaz said.