Recent articles, such as this one in Treehugger, have cast a harsh spotlight on the carbon footprint of the SpaceX launch company. One inference from this could be that Elon Musk is a hypocrite.
Musk is the founder and leader of SpaceX, but he is also the founder of several other companies, the largest and most well-known of which is his electric car company Tesla Motors.
Musk has stated repeatedly that the primary mission of Tesla is to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable forms of energy, such as electricity produced from renewable sources like wind and solar power. The obvious motivation for doing this is to reduce the effects of climate change caused primarily by human dependence on burning fossil fuels.
One of Musk’s Falcon 9 Rockets Puts out as Much Carbon as One Transatlantic Flight
But when it’s pointed out, as Treehugger did, that just one of Musk’s Falcon 9 rockets — the workhorse of the SpaceX fleet — puts out as much carbon in a single launch as a transatlantic flight carrying more than 300 people, it would appear that Musk isn’t following his own principles with his space endeavors.
But that isn’t the case. And to understand why, it’s important to examine the mission of SpaceX and the reasoning behind it. Musk has explained that he founded SpaceX to advance the goal of making mankind a multiplanetary species. Why? One reason is that it makes for a much more exciting future. But the other, far more pragmatic reason is basic survival.
We Will One Day Reach a Point when We Will Have to Leave Our Home Planet
No matter how good we are as custodians of the Earth, we will one day reach a point when we will have to leave our home planet if we are to survive indefinitely. Major disasters like asteroid impacts, super volcano eruptions, and other global catastrophes are hard to predict with any specificity. But over the timescale of the next million or hundred million years, these kinds of cataclysmic events are a virtual certainty in some form or another. And these incidents always carry the threat of completely destroying the habitable environment of our planet.
But let’s suppose for a moment these cataclysmic events don’t occur. Even if we could somehow rule out the possibility of so great a natural disaster, we possess the capability through the advent and proliferation of nuclear weapons technologies to destroy the Earth and every living thing on it, without nature’s assistance. And these weapons will never be “uninvented.” So for as long as we continue to exist in a state of imperfect reasoning, we will forever be a significant threat to our own future.
In about 5 Billion Years or So, Our Sun Will Begin the Slow Death of a Smaller Star
What if we could rule out that scenario, too? Even if natural and man-made threats were no longer a concern, we would still have to think about the long game — the very, very long game. In about 5 billion years or so, our sun will begin the slow death of a smaller star. And when it does, it will enter what we call the “red giant” phase, in which its outer layers expand to enormous volume. In fact, the sun will expand to such a size that its outermost portions will grow beyond the orbit of the Earth. In the process, everyone and everything alive on our planet at that time will be obliterated by fire.
To be fair, that is a very long time from now. But there is no uncertainty about that eventuality. The science is clear: Earth will one day be completely uninhabitable, one way or another. And again, we have no way of knowing when natural or man-made catastrophes might occur. The next one could be a million years from now. But it could also be tomorrow. So preparing our species with a mode of existence that would allow for our survival under such circumstances should be a priority.
Musk Is Using His Rocket Company to Develop Interplanetary Spacecraft Technology
And that is where Musk and SpaceX come in. Musk is using his rocket company to develop the interplanetary spacecraft technology that would allow us to colonize other planets in our solar system such as Mars. In fact, the prototype “starship” concept is undergoing rigorous development and testing right now.
Of course, these huge rockets do put considerable carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. But for Musk and his SpaceX goals, this is an unavoidable cost associated with the mission. Why? Because right now, chemical rocket fuel is the only viable propulsion that provides sufficient lift power to get spacecraft into orbit. We would love to see an electric- or a solar-powered rocket. But the fact is, with today’s technology, it just isn’t possible to launch rockets using these methods of propulsion. So we are stuck with the chemical rockets…at least for now.
To be fair, it is possible to launch rockets with lower carbon emissions. For example, the Space Shuttle did this with its entire fleet, by using liquid hydrogen (LH2) and liquid oxygen (LOX) fuels for its main engines. They generated virtually no carbon emissions — the output byproduct of the main engines was actually water vapor. However, the Space Shuttles also used Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) that produced a relatively large carbon footprint as well. So they weren’t squeaky clean by any interpretation.
SpaceX opted not to use the LH2/LOX fuel model that the Space Shuttles utilized for several reasons, most of which centered on reliability, reusability, and technical parameters. Instead, they use a highly refined kerosene called Rocket Propellant 1 or RP-1. And this of course comes with carbon emissions. But a lot of those emissions are offset by the reusability of the rockets, which SpaceX is famous for. If one considers the carbon footprint saved in not having to construct a new rocket for each launch, suddenly the math doesn’t seem as harsh for SpaceX.
Also, it has been noted that Musk can offset the emissions from his rockets by selling his Tesla automobiles. So that’s an added point of rebalancing.
Still, even if there were no such silver linings to the SpaceX rocket launch emissions situation, efforts toward that end would still be worthwhile in terms of the future of our species. We must establish sustainable other-world human colonies if we are to survive the challenges that undoubtedly await us.
So to call Musk a hypocrite for selling electric cars while also launching carbon-heavy rockets is to miss the larger point. An analogy with cruise ships will serve to illustrate.
A cruise ship might aim to improve its safety, reliability, and comfortability by performing regular maintenance, updating systems and equipment, and refreshing guest amenities. And most passengers would agree that these are all good things for ships to do on a regular basis. But cruise ships also spend money on a fleet of lifeboats they keep onboard at all times and at considerable space and expense.
We might be tempted to look at such a scenario and conclude that cruise ships’ expenditures are frivolous because they are simultaneously investing in continued operations but also planning to quite literally “abandon ship” at any moment. But of course, we know better than that. We can look at the Titanic, which spared no expense for guest comfort but opted not to procure and install sufficient lifeboats because the ocean liner’s owners were confident they were an unnecessary waste of money. In their (sadly mistaken) view, the Titanic was unsinkable.
We Must Strive to Preserve the Earth and Also Plan for Our Inevitable Departure
We learned our lesson in 1912. No serious person would criticize today’s cruise ships for investing in lifeboats, notwithstanding their cost or the amount of space they take up onboard. We know that we can and must simultaneously strive to preserve the Earth and also plan for our inevitable departure someday. Just because we are trying to create a sustainable living environment on our planet for the time being, does not mean that we cannot or should not also have a contingency plan for when things on our home planet go terribly south. After all, it’s only a matter of time.
Elon Musk has recognized this reality. And he is attempting to do both, however imperfect his efforts might be. I don’t see hypocrisy in his undertakings. To the contrary, I support both missions — Tesla and SpaceX — as they’re both sorely needed for the future of humanity. Let us not make the perfect the enemy of the good when it comes to humanity’s survival.
American Public University and American Military University offer programs in Space Studies that examine concepts such as the space exploration topics discussed in this article. Readers are encouraged to visit the APUS website for more information.