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.

  • Some Old Desert Rat

    I can understand the point that one should be forthright and honest regarding the environmental impact of any new venture. However, we should also understand that Virgin Galactic is *launching vehicles into outer space*. Of course that is going to consume a lot of energy and release pollution as a byproduct.

    We shouldn’t just give up on trying to leave Earth because a rocket ship makes black smoke. Rather, we should support space exploration technology development because it obviously benefits humanity in many, many ways.

    Rather than discouraging new systems that release carbon, I think we should reallocate some of that pollution that we allow to come from outdated fossil-fuel burning power plants, etc. to the development and testing of new technologies that, in the long run, will benefit humanity.

  • therealdmt

    There’s only a couple of hundred people signed up for this — no big deal, in my opinion (and I also consider myself an environmentalist). On the bad news side, I don’t think this (30 minute thrill rides for a quarter of a million dollars [with only a few of those minutes at the top, “in space”]) is ever going to become a big enough business to matter one way or the other. At best it’ll become like the Concorde was: something some of the well-heeled do, some even regularly, and something done by others in exceptional circumstances, a public spectacle and a symbol of the possible; but overall just a drop in the bucket, just a tiny, semi-viable niche in the world economy.

    “Cheap” orbital flight would be more revolutionary, or much less expensive (but equally fast) point-to-point service on Earth — but it won’t be SS2 that gets us there.

  • Douglas Messier

    Branson’s conversion to global warming fighter occurred years after the SpaceShipTwo program began and the hybrid engine decision was made. The question with the claims has always been whether they were genuinely based on solid numbers (there was no way to really know that), or whether this was an attempt to brand something that was clean when it wasn’t.

    Branson faced a fairly fundamental issue when he embraced fighting global warming. Here’s a guy who travels the world in his own private jet and owns airlines and has his own rubber burning spaceship fighting for carbon emissions. Branson’s tried to find long-terms solutions for aviation and other sectors with the Carbon War Room and dedicating money to the Virgin Green Fund, which provides money for bio-fuels and other projects.

    It’s a logical strategy. Time will tell how well the war room and the fund’s investments pay off in terms of innovations and change.

  • Aerospike

    I fully agree with your view, I had some similar thoughts while reading the article.

  • Tonya

    In essence, that’s carbon trading, which will also increasingly be the route to offset aviation emissions.

    Virgin Galactic have a marketing problem more than an environmental one. Once it’s operational I’m sure some environmental groups will single it out, in much the same way they’ve picked on individual high profile brands (Apple for example).

    Total environmental impact may be small, but not the potential for (bad) publicity.

  • Douglas Messier

    There’s about 650 ticket holders. If the test flight on Friday succeeds, they will probably sell another batch of tickets. It’s more than a couple of hundred — that’s 200. They passed that level long ago.

  • therealdmt

    One funny thing is (as your picture illustrates), as soon as we all saw pics or video of the first SS2 powered flight, it immediately didn’t pass “the duck test” in regards to being the cleaner burning rocket that Branson had been claiming. SS2 puts the old F-4 to shame!

    It looks like it’s burning coal or something.

    I’m sure it’s better than some toxic chemicals such as with hypergolic propellants though.

  • Tonya

    A spaceship burning coal….

    That along with the top picture which almost looks like the inside of a diving bell (complete with portholes) and I think we might have ourselves the worlds first steampunk spaceship.