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Sunday, October 24, 2021

Could Bezos and the billionaires space race help save the planet?

Space travel and the environmental movement have been strange bedfellows ever since the Pioneer 1 satellite used the first practical solar panels in 1958. Satellites have been driving innovation in solar panels ever since, and have proven crucial in determining crop health, forest fires, glacier coverage, the spread of urban development and damage to the rainforests.

Indeed, space travel has been a rich source of new green tech. The hydrogen and fuel cell technologies invented to take Apollo astronauts into space are now touted as a clean, reliable (albeit achingly expensive) alternative to batteries that can power anything from aeroplanes, such as the Pathfinder and Helio prototypes, to warships. Home insulation – hello there, Insulate Britain – owes much to spacesuit design.

Meanwhile, NASA is a leader in green engineering. By necessity, all human space travel involves recycling practically everything – water, air and food – so the space agency has been responsible for breakthroughs in water filtration, waste water treatment and soil cleaning agents. It is also one of the world’s biggest researchers into the science of hydroponics – growing crops without using land resources.

“Space-based technologies and space-derived information are central to climate knowledge, science, monitoring and early warning,” says Nick Shave, chair of UKspace, the trade association of the British space industry. “In the future, new applications of satellite data, combined with satellite positioning and communications technologies, will help drive down carbon emissions as well as providing key capabilities required to manage the devastating effects of the climate emergency to countries and communities around the world.”

The link between the environment and space travel is even more far-out than that. Bill Anders, crew member of the Apollo 8 mission, became the first human to witness the Earth peeking over the Moon’s horizon in 1968. Anders had been snapping the Moon’s surface on a scouting mission for future landings when he took the photograph later known as Earthrise. That single snap is credited with inspiring the first Earth Day in 1970, about which Anders later said: “We came all this way to explore the Moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.”

California’s environmental movement of the early 1970s gave birth to the Whole Earth Catalogue, a compendium of product listings, how-to diagrams and educational ephemera intended for the back-to-the-land movement, which featured Earthrise on its first cover. Published quarterly in 1971 and sporadically thereafter, its biggest influence was on Silicon Valley: founders of Airbnb, Stripe and Facebook, early-internet architects including Larry Brilliant, Lee Felsenstein, Ted Nelson and Steve Jobs, described the Catalog as “Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along”.

This freak-power/billionaire crossover means that while SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy emits more CO2 in a few minutes than the average car would in more than two centuries, in 2019 it carried a NASA-funded test satellite known as the Green Propellant Infusion Mission, to replace the outrageously polluting and ferociously lethal hydrazine. The new hydroxyl ammonium nitrate fuel/oxidizer blend – called AF-M315E for short – can be carried around without wearing a hazmat suit, is more efficient and emits more water than CO2.

By comparison, Bezos’s rocket, Blue Origin, is powered by a mix of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, meaning its carbon footprint – in flight, if not in construction – is zero. Given Blue Origin’s reusable launch vehicle, the project’s biggest overall source of CO2 is likely to be the crew and passengers’ flights to its Texas launch site. Just don’t mention the CO2 given off by Amazon’s server farms…

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