Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

It's Not Rocket Science
distributed 5/6/05 - ©2005

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by John and Vicky Graham, of Boulder, Colorado. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

You have heard it said, "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know what's wrong." But I say unto you, "It may take someone who is NOT a rocket scientist to see the truth."

Rocket scientists, corporate executives, politicians, environmental activists -- we all have our own ways of viewing the world. It seems like three out of four of those groups are quite excited about a new technological development. As a member of the fourth group, I'm not as exuberant.

Last October, an innovative new rocket ship, "SpaceShipOne", made two flights into space within a week. For meeting that challenge, the backers of the project won a $10 million prize. At a time when the US government is struggling to get its own space shuttles back into even occasional flight, the twice-in-a-week schedule is a remarkable technological achievement. The rocket scientists have good reason to be thrilled.

If it stopped there -- an astonishing innovation, a daring test pilot with an almost out-of-control craft on the first flight, and a generous reward -- I could join the rocket scientists and the civic boosters in celebration. But it isn't stopping there.

The problem is that SpaceShipOne -- joined by a fleet of other such craft -- may soon be making far more frequent jaunts up to the edge of space.

One of the businessmen affiliated with the project said, "Our long-term goal is to develop commercial space tourism into an orbital business which could in the future carry payloads as well as people into orbit." Stimulating that sort of private launch capacity was the goal behind the $10 million Ansari X Prize.

How many tourists are they thinking about? One business plan looks at 500 astronauts in the first year of operation (2008 or 2009), increasing soon to 3,000, with an eventual goal of 50,000 to 100,000 astronauts by the twelfth year. The space travelers may pay something like $200,000 each for their two hour trip on the "spaceliner."

Spaceship designer Burt Rutan said, "I'm not at all embarrassed that we're opening up a new industry that will likely be a multi-billion dollar industry that's focused only on fun."

The governor of New Mexico is a booster for the project, since he hopes that the Southwest Regional Spaceport -- located in his home state -- will be one of several operating bases for the new fleet. Florida and Texas are also in the bidding for what they see as an economic development plum.

Now, I'm not a rocket scientist. My professional and civic detachment could be a good thing, if it lets me think a little bit more broadly about this proposal. Here are some of the questions that come to my mind.

Q - At a time when we're becoming increasingly aware of the limits of available fuels (like the jet fuel used in the first stage of launching), and at a time when the complex dynamics of global warming are becoming increasingly clear, and at a time when we're realizing that high-altitude pollution can have distinctive and long-lasting effects -- at such a time, should we really be developing a totally optional new industry that burns lots of fuel, adds to climate change, and causes new forms of upper-atmosphere pollution?

Q - Is there any provision now in place, or in the works, to require an environmental impact analysis for these space-hopping flights? Are there any proposals to make either the space tourists or the companies pay for the ecological effects of their flights?

Q - Is profit, for individuals or corporations, a goal that overwhelms any other considerations? Or does a society have the ability -- even the obligation -- to ask whether this new commercial enterprise fits with the values and the health of the larger society?

Q - On the flip side of the question, dealing with consumer choice, does the ability to pay for something give people free license to do whatever they want with scarce resources and/or pollution? If there are people who can pay the big bucks for a 2-hour joyride, do they have an unquestioned right to do so, whether or not it is good for the planet?

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I'm not on a crusade to shut down "Virgin Galactic" and their space flight business. However, I do think that this is an opportune time to ask some serious questions about their new venture, and about the overall trajectory of our society.

The people that I tend to hang out with -- faith-based eco-justice activists, not rocket scientists -- are pretty well agreed that modern human societies are living unsustainably on this planet. We, along with a growing number of business leaders and politicians -- and probably a lot of rocket scientists, too -- know that significant social, economic, political and cultural changes are needed to move us into a more sustainable course.

Space tourism does not strike me as a step in the right direction. And if we can't ask challenging questions now, at the birth of this whole new enterprise, then I see little hope of questioning the dominant patterns in existing segments of our society.

And so I challenge you to use SpaceShipOne as a provocative conversation starter. Ask your friends, the members of your church, your business colleagues, and politicians -- is space flight for the rich what we want and need? In our decisions on space flight, and for countless other situations, what are the values and standards that we affirm and demand? Where and how do we draw the line?

Just asking those questions will help us gain control over our future.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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