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The environmental cost of New Space tourism

How does the private sector's emphasis on space tourism influence greenhouse gas emissions and climate change?

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Privately owned New Space industry companies have rapidly developed technology for space rocket reuse and satellite miniaturisation, enabling less costly access to space. This has made the space environment increasingly important economically and politically for many formerly non-active countries, such as Finland. New Space industry tourism operators Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic and Space X have recently established commercial space tourism activities enhanced by technological innovations. 

Space tourism could be promoted as a next-generation luxury experience offering affluent travellers unique adventures that are difficult to replicate on Earth. The commercial space tourism concept includes various forms of Earth-based terrestrial space activities, atmospheric and low Earth orbit tourism, and Astro-tourism referring to the Moon or Mars. Lucrative future business prospects prompt it. Expanding tourism into outer space may even be significant for humanity, as some astronauts have described viewing the Earth from space as a life-changing experience, enhancing people’s respect for the planet.

Space tourism as a next-generation luxury
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In light of the megatrend of environmentalism, different tourism activities are now facing climate change-related challenges to convince the greater public of their necessity. Enhanced by the International Panel on Climate Change (2018) report, which addressed the negative impacts of climate change, there is an urge to adopt new sustainable ways of operations for all tourism-related practices. Hence the obvious environmental concerns arising from developing a completely new tourism sector.

Finland as a Case Study for Sustainability Views 

Space tourism is already part of Finland’s New Space industry economy, as the nation has terrestrial space tourists and private businesses contributing to New Space industry operations (e.g. via satellite developments). This research examined the views held by the Finnish people about space tourism and sustainability through two surveys. The first survey gathered Finnish public opinion on space tourism’s sustainability, and the second utilised a professional Delphi panel for more insightful explanations. The key question related to what kind of sustainability aspects Finns regard as most significant in relation to future space tourism, aiming to assist future New Space strategies, including space tourism, for Finland.

The research findings demonstrated that sustainability in space tourism could be compressed into four different areas – “virtual travel”, “comparative fairness”, “technological innovations”, and “ecopolitics”. The findings indicated that the significant influences on space tourism’s sustainability include issues related to environmentally focused technology developments and tightened national initiatives prompted by global climate change regulations. Ethical concerns were raised in connection with further developments in space tourism, such as growing rich versus poor inequalities – especially relevant to the discourse of future space colonisation and ultimately saving the human race in the case of a global catastrophe.

There were considerations of the social fairness of space tourism, as the high ticket cost currently limits the physical escapism from the Earth only for the wealthy. Even though the growing environmental impacts, such emissions eventually will affect the mutually shared atmosphere. Hence there is an expressed desire for New Space tourism companies, as well as space travellers, to assume responsibility for the environmental impacts caused, such as by financially compensating for emissions, with funds possibly applied to improving other sustainability-oriented schemes on the Earth.

Future Suggestions

Virtual travel enables an individual to gain an experience of the outer space environment without leaving the Earth. Finnish Lapland is an internationally popular tourism destination for witnessing the Northern Lights. This form of terrestrial space tourism allows tourists to explore the universe using the naked eye from the Earth. In the future, this touristic experience could be enhanced by using multi-sensorial technological gadgets on site. This would create a realistic space tourism experience at an affordable price and thus democratising participation in commercial space tourism activities.

As the global space legislation does not yet cover the New Space industry activities, the space environment is currently akin to the historic “Wild West”, characterised by a “first come, first served” attitude. This creates a future risk that New Space industry companies will become concerned about their financial share of benefits in commercial space activities, leading to an issue around “free-riding” when it comes to shared environmental responsibilities.

To ensure that the space environment will not be commercialised for the exclusive benefit of powerful corporations, governmental involvement is needed to support any climate change-related future concerns regarding space. Finland´s existing space legislation already encompasses a positive approach to the environment and space sustainability by highlighting the importance of environmental issues in outer space and on Earth. This approach could be utilised as a globally recognized concept for any future New Space industry regulations on a global scale.   

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Journal reference

Toivonen, A. (2022). Sustainability dimensions in space tourism: the case of Finland. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 30(9). https://doi.org/10.1080/09669582.2020.1783276

Dr. Annette Toivonen is a pioneering tourism researcher and author on sustainable space tourism. She's a senior lecturer at Haaga-Helia University, Finland. Annette created the "Responsible Space Tourism" course in 2019 based on her book "Sustainable Space Tourism - An Introduction" and co-authored "Science Fiction, Disruption and Tourism.