When discussing how human activity affects the environment, many people focus solely on emissions from passenger vehicles and airplanes, but few stop to contemplate how space travel can affect our planet. In fact, the debris and emissions from rocket launches pose a significant risk to our air and water.
Here, we take a look at how the space program can adversely affect the environment and what is being done to address the risks.
Stratospheric Ozone Damage
People use rockets and other spacecraft much less frequently than they do cars or airplanes, yet these vehicles can cause serious damage to the ozone layer, which protects the earth from the many harmful effects of the sun. Upon takeoff, rockets release highly reactive gases, such as chlorine, which reacts with oxygen to form chorine oxides that split apart ozone molecules. Rocket engines also emit very small particles of aluminum oxide and soot, and these materials can accelerate the rate of ozone damage.
How damaging emissions from spacecraft are is dependent upon the type of fuel a rocket uses. For example, solid propellants tend to be more damaging to the ozone layer than liquid propellants are, but scientists don’t yet understand exactly how big the difference is. Even more troubling is the fact that spacecraft release these pollutants directly into the upper and middle sections of the stratosphere, which means that the gases can start their destructive work right away.
Increased Risk of Diseases and Disorders
Humans and other living creatures eventually inhale or ingest some of the toxins that rocket launches spew into the atmosphere, and these substances can contribute to a variety of diseases and disorders. Further, ozone damage caused by spacecraft lets in more harmful ultraviolet rays, which cause skin cancer as well as other a number of other conditions, such as cataracts.
Many of the chemicals generated by spacecraft launches are proven carcinogens, and these chemicals often leach into the soil surrounding launch areas. As a result, these areas face costly and difficult cleanup efforts in order to protect citizens who live nearby.
Space Tourism and the Future of the Planet
The cost of space travel for tourism purposes is currently so expensive that many citizens simply can’t afford to participate. However, as the cost of private space exploration comes down over time, increasing numbers of people will be able to purchase this experience.
Rocket launches currently account for a very small percentage of the world’s CO2 emissions. However, as the space tourism industry becomes an increasingly viable proposition, pollution from space travel might become a more significant problem in the near future.
During the early years of America’s space program, only a handful of people understood how dangerous the substances involved in launching a spacecraft could be, and even fewer knew how to properly dispose of these toxic chemicals. As a result, workers simply poured substances down drains and dumped chemicals on nearby land in hopes that the toxic sludge would simply evaporate.
These careless disposal methods resulted in a variety of toxic spills and 267 known contamination sites, of which only 141 have been cleaned up. According to the Freedom of Information Act, the area around the Kennedy Space Center in Florida contains about two square miles of contaminated soil and groundwater. Although no water from the surrounding area is delivered to citizens or officials, the cleanup of the areas still mandated by the federal government, and long-term damage to wildlife and their habitats is still relatively uncertain.
Because so much time passed between the beginning of space travel and initial cleanup efforts, it may take nearly a century to fully clean up the mess left behind by our earliest space missions. Some estimate that these cleanup efforts will cost about $100 million over the next three decades.
There is still a great deal of research needed on exactly how space travel affects the environment, but it is worth noting that rocket pollution is a real issue that will only get more complicated as space travel tourism begins gain momentum. As such, it’s never been more important to educate citizens on the real threats posed by an increase in rocket launches and space travel in general.