Op Ed: Branson’s Environmental Claims for SpaceShipTwo False

 Sir Richard Branson and daughter, Holly, look through the window of a SpaceShipTwo shell. (Photo credit: Mark Greenberg/Virgin Galactic)
Sir Richard Branson and daughter, Holly, look through the window of a SpaceShipTwo shell. (Photo credit: Mark Greenberg/Virgin Galactic)

Sir Richard Branson’s claims over the years about the environmentally friendly nature of his SpaceShipTwo suborbital space tourism vehicle have always been difficult to properly evaluate. The Virgin Galactic and Carbon War Room founder has never submitted the methodology, assumptions and calculations used to arrive at those conclusions to anything remotely resembling peer review — either by experts or the public at large.

The result was a series of claims designed to burnish Branson’s eco-warrior reputation that were based on minimal evidence and generated considerable skepticism. The doubts were crystallized once SpaceShipTwo finally started flying under power in the skies over the Mojave Desert last April.
SpaceShipTwo in powered flight. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
SpaceShipTwo in powered flight. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

One wag I know is not alone in dubbing the ship’s hybrid nitrous oxide-rubber engine a “flying tire fire.”  (The ship doesn’t literally burn tire rubber, but the effects are similar.)

Max Luke, a policy associate in the Energy and Climate Program at Breakthrough Institute in Oakland, Calif., has subjected Sir Richard’s claims to detailed scrutiny and found them to be false. In a Wall Street Journal opinion piece co-authored with Breakthrough Institute assistant editor Jenna Mukuno, Luke wrote:

Private space travel doesn’t seem to mesh with living green, and Mr. Branson surely anticipated that his project would raise environmentalists’ eyebrows. Perhaps that’s why he announced this past May: “We have reduced the [carbon emission] cost of somebody going into space from something like two weeks of New York’s electricity supply to less than the cost of an economy round-trip from Singapore to London.”

That would be a remarkable achievement in energy efficiency if it were true. Alas, it is not. According to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s environmental assessment of the launch and re-entry of Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft, one launch-land cycle emits about 30 tons of carbon dioxide, or about five tons per passenger. That is about five times the carbon footprint of a flight from Singapore to London.

When you include the energy of the entire Virgin Galactic operation, which includes support aircraft, it is seven times more than the flight from Singapore to London. As such, a single trip on Virgin Galactic will require twice as much energy as the average American consumes each year. (These numbers were confirmed by a representative for Virgin Galactic.)

Although they find Branson’s commitment to fighting climate change “praiseworthy,” the authors believe that Branson is not walking the walk here. They also criticize another prominent celebrity environmentalist, Leonardo DiCaprio, for having a ticket aboard SpaceShipTwo.
The writers also point out that while there are major efforts to conserve energy and to produce it in cleaner ways, the overall consumption of energy keeps going up as the developing world lifts millions out of poverty and inventors in the developed world find new ways to use it.
It might be that global warming will one day motivate societies to ban things like space tourism, impose stricter regulations and higher taxes on energy consumption, or voluntarily reduce their energy consumption. But it’s notable that many of the same people who express the most concern about global warming—including Messrs. Branson and DiCaprio—are the ones who are opening up new frontiers in energy consumption.
Branson and Virgin Galactic might well decide to fight back against these claims. They have many years invested in their environmental claims about SpaceShipTwo. And Sir Richard’s reputation as an eco-warrior is at stake. If they do so, however, they’ll need to produce better evidence than they have thus far.