Rocket launches

The environmental impact of rocket launches

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Rocket launches are unquestionably thrilling. But with their frequency increasing in this new space age, our columnist SJ is wondering about the negative impact they have on the planet they leave in their wake

I like to romantically compare witnessing your first rocket launch to getting your first kiss. The warm glow on your skin; your toes curling into the ground as you feel the shake. The entire time your head is tilted back, eyes squinted closed but not quite all the way. Then there’s pause that comes with the will-they/won’t-they anticipation. Then, as sudden as the moment began, it’s all over.

Space launches are incredibly complicated: compared to traditional cargo aircraft, rockets require significantly more specialised ground infrastructure.

It takes a full 24 hours in advance of the expected launch window to move the rocket from storage to the launch site, to get it hooked up to the booster, and loaded with crew members, fuel and supplies.

Not included in this calculation are the gruelling years of testing, manufacturing and assembly that take place beforehand.

Yet, when launch day finally comes, so many things can go awry. Inclement weather, some asshole sailing his boat too close to the launch site, abnormal sensor readings, fuel not reaching the appropriate temperature, vertical wind shear.

Hell – even the clouds being too thick can completely cancel your date with space. With so much potential for things to go wrong, you start to wonder how any of the commercial space companies have ever been kissed?


Launch sustainability

With the scrubbed launch this Spring of the 3D-printed rocket from Relativity, I began to pay a lot more attention to the sustainability of these launches – and not just the rockets themselves, but more so the supply chain and logistics involved.

A reusable rocket sounds great in theory, but a launch itself still has a horrible environmental impact.

For starters, I don’t think that there are enough carbon offset credits to combat the 50 to 100 times increase in emissions generated from a single launch as compared to the average airplane ride.

In 2022, SpaceX launched 180 rockets. That’s 30,600 to 61,200 trees for those of you still following. To summarise: one airplane = 34 trees. One SpaceX launch = well over 30,000 trees.

Additionally, if the excessive carbon being dumped into the atmosphere isn’t enough to give you pause for thought, then there’s also this to bear in mind: atmospheric models from University College London have revealed that the soot particles left by these rockets retain up to 500 times more heat in our atmosphere than all other sources of soot combined.

To the moon and back

The hunger to experience the thrill of a launch first-hand is driving a hectic commercial space industry. In 2021, for example, we all watched the race to space among top-table billionaires, as Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin battled it out.

For many of us living in a world ravaged by a life-threatening pandemic, emotions ranged from wonderment and awe to disbelief and even anger.

Most of us will never have the luxury of leaving this blue marble behind when it literally gets too hot to stick around. So what will it take to get this new space industry to pay attention to its environmental impact? A specialised tech-bro tax credit incentive? An updated green-er deal? Reusable rockets that are somehow cheaper than the current estimated low, low price of $67 million?

There’s a lot that new space can learn from the commercial airline industry when it comes to tackling the challenge that is sustainability.

Tactics might include swapping to more sustainable fuels; creating new engines that reduce emissions, noise and fuel burn; and funding grant programmes to analyse, review and track emissions, energy efficiencies, operational efficiency, and climate impact (to name a few).

Most of us will never have the luxury of leaving this blue marble behind when it literally gets too hot on this planet to stick around. So what will it take to get the space industry to pay attention to its environmental impact?

Intentional choices

I understand how incredibly challenging it can be to bake sustainability into a product that has been almost a decade in the making.

But in the emerging area of rocket logistics, the industry could be more sustainable and reduce environmental impact for every launch by making stronger, intentional investments in areas like equipment procurement, basing, international diplomacy and more efficiently trained and skilled personnel.

Becoming more efficient at handling takeoff and landing – where most rockets burn the greatest amount of fuel – can only help us in the long run.

Sustainability isn’t an easy ask for any country, industry or large rocket manufacturer. But all I’m asking is for some of them to try.

I know that it won’t be easy and that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but I leave you with my mother’s sage advice: Sometimes you have to kiss a few frogs before you get to the charming part.

This article first appeared in DEVELOP3D Magazine

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