The Devastating Environmental Impact of the Space Program

My brother is a Trekkie. No, not a long-distance hiker but a Star Trek fan. He has watched all the films and TV shows, met some of its stars at expensive conventions across the world and has plastic models of ships adorning his living room. (Before you ask: Yes, he has a girlfriend and yes, she’s gorgeous.)

In his lifetime and mine, it will likely be possible for punters like us to go to space. We’ll be hitching a ride on the coat tails of 70 years of scientists who have been working out how to shoot rockets into space and how to safely put people on them.

There are few who don’t think that science is incredibly cool but Star Trek is about ethics and caring for humankind’s legacy – and what kind of legacy are we leaving in the wake of the space program? In short: Toxic soils, disease, ecosystem upheaval, resource depletion, and human and wildlife displacement.

From a 1978 Environmental Impact Statement about the risk of acid rain after launches at Cape Canaveral. Source: NASA.
From a 1978 Environmental Impact Statement about the risk of acid rain after launches at Cape Canaveral. Source: NASA.

The group with the best cleanup record is NASA, and it is spending $6 million a year trying to decontaminate soil under its primary launch site Cape Canaveral in Florida.

In the heady days of the Space Race, we sent 86 rockets off this planet by whatever means necessary. We used cutting-edge technology but dirty fuels – we’re talking plutonium, nitric acid, volatile amines like aniline and members of a truly nasty solvent family called trichloroethylene (known as “trikes” to their friends) that are known to cause birth defects and cancer.

Through a Freedom of Information request, Florida Today found 2 square miles (some 90 ft deep) of contaminated soil and groundwater, and several decades of neglect in caring for the local environment. Bits of launcher rockets routinely come down over a Russian farming district, in some cases killing livestock and potentially poisoning the locals.

Many of our spacecraft are powered by plutonium-238, which as you can imagine is not cheap or environmentally friendly to produce. In 2012, NASA began a project to make a new stock of plutonium or risk running out.

And then there is what’s up there.

More than 20,000 traceable pieces of space junk orbit our earth – that is, pieces bigger than a softball. A hand-sized piece nearly took out the International Space Station in November, which was saved only by some last-minute maneuvering by the crew. Another estimated 500,000 bits are too small to track. Imagine a cloud of bent satellite braces and bolts from spent rockets.

Though just because they’re small doesn’t mean they are insignificant. As NASA points out, even flecks of paint going 17,500 mph can put paid to one of the 800 working spacecraft in orbit. And of course, even two defunct spacecraft smashing into each other will create more debris and exacerbate the problem.

We have been here before. In the middle ages we built water mills throughout Europe, changing watercourses and devastating ecosystems before developing more sustainable technologies for replenishing our civilizations. Without those early water mills, we might never have developed crop-rotation agriculture, universities and gunpowder. Might the space program be in its own Middle Ages, experimenting with new technologies to find better ways to live and explore?

The truth is, we can only guess at the long-term impacts of the space program – we haven’t been at it long enough to know. Does that mean we should stop space exploration in its tracks? Let’s look at the flipside, and all that the space program has to offer our own “pale blue dot.”

Our lives have been greatly enriched by the “giant leaps” of the space program. You can thank NASA for iodine water filters and cochlear implants, and the Russians for carbon nanotubes and space food.

More than the space program’s inventions, it is its commitment to innovation that we benefit from as it inspires generations of businesspeople, creators and nonprofit leaders to reach for the stars – literally in the case of future commercial space carriers Virgin Galactic and co.

NASA is mapping ocean color from space. Source: NASA
NASA is mapping ocean color from space. Source: NASA

Beyond the Sea

Through its vast array of satellites and other tracking equipment, NASA and co are giving us the quality weather and climate data we need to inform our environmental understanding, especially about climate change.

In March, NASA announced plans to launch a climate satellite as part of a project called the Pre-Aerosol Clouds and ocean Ecosystem mission. The mission, scheduled to launch in 2022, will study ocean ecology and chemistry plus the impact of clouds and aerosols on our climate. It’ll do this by sensing what they call “ocean color”, which is measuring phytoplankton biomass from space. Phytoplankton live in the top layer of the ocean, within reach of the sun’s rays, and produce at least half the oxygen on earth; as well as providing the foundation of the marine food chain.

PACE project scientist Jeremy Werdell told NASA that the project would give the world a better understanding of the role of marine phytoplankton in the carbon cycle.

“Knowing more about global phytoplankton community composition will help us understand how living marine resources respond to a changing climate,” Mr Werdell said.

Frequent readers may remember us breathlessly singing the praises of a type of phytoplankton, cyanobacteria, for its ability to knit our topsoil together. These little greeblies should be heroes to us all, and NASA is keen to give them their time in the sun.

Kepler is looking for earth-like planets. Source: NASA
Kepler is looking for earth-like planets. Source: NASA

The Goldilocks Proposition

The irony of our environmental inaction, of course, is that as mammals and top predators, we are among the most vulnerable to a changing climate. If we go too far and make this planet uninhabitable for us – as some think we already have – the human race will want to move.

Once again, the space program is on the case. Since 2009, the Kepler mission has been using some seriously cool imaging techniques to identify what could be Earth-sized planets orbiting an appropriate distance from stars to be considered possible of supporting life. Scientists study Kelper’s high-resolution photographs of distant stars and by modeling the way light dips as an orbiting planet passes in front, they can make inferences about so-called “Goldilocks” planets.

Even if we never find somewhere perfect, it will likely be the space program that will work out how to terraform a decent halfway home or build a craft capable of keeping us alive for the long distances required to find our new planet.

Head in the clouds, feet on the earth

Despite its dirty history, NASA is one of our allies in one of the biggest environmental challenges – the battle for “hearts and minds”. Despite a constant barrage of criticism, most recently from Senate Space, Science and Competitiveness Subcommittee Chairman Ted Cruz, the space agency has made it part of its mission to doggedly collect, analyze and share scientific information on climate from hundreds of sources on earth and in orbit. Its outspoken, scientific discussion of our predicament is the even-handed, thoughtful elder the environment movement needs to grow its ranks and encourage more people to take action.

Last month, a NASA report used historic climate data and soil moisture measurements to project a several decades-long “megadrought” would seize my state of California, plus the southwest and the Great Plains region, possibly as soon as 2050. The area is home to roughly 60 million people currently, and is the food bowl of the nation. California alone produces $46.4 billion in food each year – and has a near monopoly on artichokes, walnuts, plums, celery and garlic. If we lose the viability of our food lands, we risk more than the relocation of a few Orange County princesses.

It is a dire prediction and the authorities are starting to take notice. Californian Governor Jerry Brown this year introduced the first ever statewide water restrictions, citing the lowest ever snow season on record. The Sierra snowpack, which produces much of our water, is just 8 per cent of the average.

Space agencies have a vital role to play in measuring and advocating on behalf of our environment. Thanks to them, we are able to better understand the scale of the problems and how they interrelate; which give us a better chance of innovating for a greener future.

But more than that, I think the space race has given us permission to change our future. Going to the Moon once seemed uncanny, foolhardy and impossibly hard but we proved we could rise to the challenge. What NASA and co proves is that with good science and the support of our people, we can puzzle out climate change and find ways to make our own planet a destination for generations to come.