Do Virgin Galactic’s Environmental Claims Stand Up?

It's ain't easy being green!

It's ain't easy being green!

The Guardian’s Leo Hickman raises some interesting questions about Virgin Galactic’s environmental claims:

The company says that it has built a “clean spaceship” and that the “CO2 emissions per passenger on a spaceflight will be equivalent to approximately 60% of a per passenger return commercial London/New York flight”.

It’s hard to see how that calculation stacks up but Virgin has yet to break down these figures so we have no real way of knowing.

What it does say to support its environmental claims is that an “air launch means short rocket burn”, the “carrier aircraft uses the latest highly efficient turbo fan jet engines”, and that SpaceShipTwo’s re-entry and landing are “unpowered”. A “litres of fuel burned per flight” figure would probably better serve this particular debate, though.

I agree. I would like to see Virgin release the figures and methodology behind the claim. Otherwise, it seems like an apples and walnuts comparison.

I’m wondering if they have properly accounted for the weight of luggage, cargo, food and beverages, or the 14-member crew of a 747. The WK2/SS2 carries all of 10 people (six passengers, four crew) on two-hour bare bones journey that begins and ends at the exact same place. No luggage, cargo, entertainment systems or first-class seats that fold out into beds.

And, as Hickman mentions, SS2 is not like an airplane; it’s got one shot at landing. It misses and bam, you’re plowing into the Joshua trees.

Hickman also examines another of Virgin’s environmental claims:

But in a recent interview with Reuters, Virgin Galactic president Will Whitehorn added another extraordinary environmental claim to his growing collection by arguing that “every astronaut is an environmentalist”. Viewing Earth from space would transform people’s attitudes to the environment, he said. Isn’t this a rather extravagant and self-defeating way to reach such a conclusion, though?

Couldn’t they just, say, watch a David Attenborough documentary like the rest of us rather than set fire to large quantities of rocket fuel to achieve their eureka moment?

An excellent question. I’ve never been anywhere near space and I get it. Richard Branson gets it. Lots of people get it.

And, if given a choice, are billionauts and millionauts going to put their money into (a) saving the Amazon rain forest; (b) going up again; or (c) investing in a project to build an orbital hotel where they can vacation without having to pay the Russians $35 million?

My guess is (b) and (c) more than (a). Although our current corps of space voyagers has made some efforts to protect the Earth (Rusty Schweikert’s efforts on asteroids comes to mind), most of them have been proponents of more spending on human spaceflight, i.e., getting more people into space.

Given the need to bring down orbital spaceflight to some reason cost, and the sheer amount of infrastructure you would need to build up out there, the development of space could eat up decades of investment capital. There would be returns on investments, of course, but it will soak up a lot of money for quite some time.

Well, these matters are open for debate. For now, I’d like the see the actual numbers behind Virgin’s environment claims. If they’re solid, there should be no reason to withhold them.

Read Hickman’s full story.