We have trashed the oceans — now we are trashing space

Experts say rocket emissions affect our climate and cause ozone loss, but too few people seem to care

By Kevin McKenna  /  The Guardian

Tue, Feb 13, 2018 - Page 9

David Attenborough’s Blue Planet series raised awareness of garbage tips traversing our oceans and choking some of the most beloved marine species.

This has led to a global debate about how plastic is manufactured and disposed of. The Scottish government announced that it is to host an international conference next year to discuss action on marine litter.

It is ideal territory for any government seeking to be regarded as edgy and cool on this year’s fashionable cause. No one could disagree with its aims and purpose and, more importantly, nothing that emerges from it will commit anyone to spending money or risking the growth of emerging industries.

Marine technology might soon have advanced to the stage where we can actually interpret what whales and dolphins are saying and begin to solicit their views on the subject. These creatures are believed to possess remarkable intelligence. If we reached the stage where we could converse with them, perhaps we could appoint some of them as environment tsars in Western governments — that would sort the wheat from the chaff in all the chattering about the human effect on the health of marine life.

As the debate about our slatternly disposal of plastics was raging down on Earth, we were all acclaiming a fresh addition to the garbage dump swirling above us in space.

Billionaire car manufacturer Elon Musk launched one of his Tesla Roadsters in a rocket produced by his company, SpaceX. According to people who know about this stuff, it was the biggest and most powerful rocket launched since the Apollo series and Saturn V.

We further learned that the rocket, the Falcon Heavy, uses 27 Merlin rocket engines to develop 22,819 kilonewtons of thrust. I am assured that this can carry a 64-tonne payload into low Earth orbit or geosynchronous orbit — more than sufficient for propelling a sports car to Mars.

I will not pretend that I understand the science, but let us just say that Musk will not be getting invited to address an environmental summit in the near future.

You might be tempted to dismiss this as an expensive publicity stunt by a billionaire playboy with too much time on his hands, but in reality, it is an important step toward a time when space travel for your average indolent millionaire will become commonplace. It will probably become another way of managing your finances when Mars inevitably becomes the ultimate off-shore tax haven.

What our fetish for space exploration and spending billions of US dollars on the technology required to feed this does to the environment is a serious matter.


There is a dissonance emerging here. On Earth, we are organizing summits and setting up carbon footprint-reduction targets all over the place.

However, up in yonder outer space, we have established a giant garbage dump replete with huge hulks of rusting metal and, as of last week, a US$200,000 US sports car.

Indeed, the whole issue of rocket emissions needs to be considered if we are serious about the environment. These emissions deliver gases and particles into the Earth’s upper atmosphere and this will be addressed later this year at the UN’s quadrennial global ozone assessment conference.

Martin Ross, a senior project engineer for civil and commercial launch projects at the Aerospace Corporation in California, told the online journal Space.com that rocket soot accumulates in the upper stratosphere, where the particles absorb sunlight.

“This accumulation heats the upper stratosphere, changing chemical reaction rates and likely leading to ozone loss,” he said. “The 2018 assessment is really the first one to have a substantial section on rocket emissions, not just a passing thought — we now understand that the climate and ozone impacts of rocket exhaust are completely intertwined.”

If we are discussing space, then we ought to be discussing the effect of all these rockets on our potential neighbors in the galaxy.

I have always found it curious that despite spending even more billions over decades trying to locate other forms of intelligent life, we have had nary a cheep back — not even a single intergalactic WhatsApp message.

Either our neighbors are a rude shower or they simply do not exist.

However, what if there is another, more sinister explanation: They do exist, but are so far ahead of us in intelligence that they have created the means to put themselves out of our reach, perhaps with a giant jamming device.

This would explain all those sightings of extraterrestrial spacecraft and kidnappings. Every so often, they check us out to see if we have advanced to a stage where they feel that they can have a reasonable chat with us. Such visits are bound to have left them disappointed.

In recent months, I can imagine one of their scouts reporting back: “Look, 2,000 years ago, the leader of the civilized world in Rome gave his horse a seat in his Cabinet — now the most civilized country in the world has appointed some medieval bampot called [US President Donald] Trump. They’re still savages.”

I can only imagine, too, how resentful they are getting toward us for disfiguring their neighborhood with obsolete metal junk. If I were them, I would be sorely tempted to invade us to sort this out, or simply send a short, sharp reminder that our actions have consequences.

Mind how you go.