INTEGRATING SUSTAINABILITY IN SPACE TOURISM

Abstract

The human desire to explore the ‘unknown’ and the zeal to reach higher goals has made it possible to blur the boundaries between tourism and activities that were once only open to a relatively tiny portion of the population. Space, described as the ‘final frontier’ for humanity, has previously been accessed only by trained professionals. In recent years, pioneers such as SpaceX and The Virgin Group have proposed ambitious plans to make space tourism accessible to the masses. However, the big question that many scholars are asking is: “is it possible to integrate sustainability and space?” The aim of this article is to discuss different conceptual frameworks and models which have been recommended in academia when it comes to integrating sustainability with space tourism. The three frameworks are: ‘Sustainable Future Planning Framework’, ‘Stakeholder Alignment Framework’ and ‘Performance Objectives Framework.’ 

The relationship between sustainability and tourism

Two schools of thought exist on the relationship between sustainability and space tourism (Fawkes, 2009). Firstly, some scholars believe that sustainability can hinder development in space tourism (Dredge & Jenkins, 2007; Sharpley, 2015). Space tourism and sustainability may appear incompatible as space travel is often linked to wastage of resources (Fawkes, 2009). Additionally the tourism industry as a whole, tends to rely too much on theoretical models which are hard to practically implement and can create a dogmatic approach to resource protection and conservation (Sharpley, 2015). This in turn has failed to fulfill the expectations of global stakeholders in order to achieve long term sustainability (Moscardo & Murphy, 2014; Sharpley, 2015). The other position claims that sustainable development of the tourism industry is a “win-win-win” situation for the locals, tourists and governments (Carter, Garrod & Low, 2015). The locals enjoy the monetary benefits from responsible visitors and lower environmental damages (Nejati, Mohamed, Omar, 2015). The tourists get to enjoy a quality experience in a responsible manner (Spenceley, 2008). Finally, sustainable development can be used for place marketing and a variety of promotional activities in order to enhance the overall image of the tourism industry (Nejati, Mohamed, Omar, 2015). This would in turn, help the local governments to further enhance the environmental and social impacts of tourism for different communities (Maheshwari, Vandewalle, Bamber, 2011).

Impacts of tourism on the environment

The tourism industry is notorious for its impact on the environment (Camus, Hikkerova & Sahut, 2012; Cohen, 1978; Kavallinis & Pizam, 1994; Sunlu, 2003). It puts pressure on existing natural resources through overconsumption and overexploitation which can eventually lead to increased pollution, environmental degradation, and climate change (Buckley, 2011). According to a study funded by NASA and The Aerospace Corporation, increased commercial space flights could potentially accelerate global warming and cause large scale disruption of the local environment (Ross, Mills & Toohey, 2010). The study calculated the impact of 1000 suborbital launches of hybrid rockets and found that nearly 600 tons of black carbon was emitted into the stratosphere (Ross, Mills & Toohey, 2010). The soot particles remained localized which in turn created a strong hemispherical asymmetry (Mann, 2010). Hemispherical asymmetry here refers to the unequal distribution of black soot particles across the different hemispheres around the earth (Ross, Mills & Toohey, 2010). As a result, the temperatures around the poles went up by 0.2 to 1 °C (0.36 – 1.80 °F) and the temperatures around the tropics decreased by around 0.4 °C (0.72 °F) (Ross, Mills & Toohey, 2010). The study found that the ozone layer around the tropics and the polar regions was also affected (Ross, Mills & Toohey, 2010). Additionally, perchlorate oxidizers used in solid booster rockets generate large amounts of hydrochloric acid (HCl) during the combustion process (DeLuca, 2016). Hydrochloric acid is highly corrosive and is water-soluble (Madsen, 1981). A 10-year study conducted at the Kennedy Space Center found that deposition of hydrochloric acid and aluminum oxide from space shuttle launches lead to vegetation damage, increased mortality in the local wildlife, loss of sensitive species and temporary increases in available metals in water and soils (Schmalzer, Hinkle, Breininger, Knott III & Koller Jr, 1985). 

Another phenomenon that might have a negative impact on future space operations is Kessler Syndrome (Adilov, Alexander & Cunningham, 2018). Named after former NASA scientist David Kessler, Kessler syndrome is used to describe a self-sustaining chain reaction that is generated in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) due to the collision of space debris from spent rockets, old satellite fragments, paint flecks, nuts and bolts (Kessler, Johnson, Liou, & Matney, 2010). Recent estimates by the US Space Surveillance Network suggest that there are more than 128 million pieces of debris smaller than 1 centimeter forming a ring of debris around the earth (Space debris by the numbers., 2020.). Theoretically, if there are enough collisions, the amount of space debris can potentially overwhelm the orbital space entirely (LaVoie, 2013). According to a 1995 study by the National Academy of Sciences, a single 1 kg space debris traveling at 10 km/s can catastrophically break a 1000 kg spacecraft (National Research Council, 1995). An entire orbit full of such particles would make it virtually impossible to safely plan future space endeavors (Pelton, 2013). Kessler suggested that it would take roughly 30 to 40 years to reach the critical mass limit around the Earth’s orbit (Kessler et al., 2010). Some estimates suggest that we have already reached the threshold limit in low-Earth orbit at about 900 to 1000 kilometers (Kessler et al., 2010). 

Therefore, the space tourism industry must mitigate these potential environmental risks through a proper analytical framework. 

Frameworks that integrate sustainability and space tourism

Sustainable Future Planning Framework

Different frameworks and models have been recommended to integrate sustainability into space tourism (Webber, 2013; Ehrenfreund & Peter, 2009; Slack, 1994). According to the Sustainable Future Planning Framework (fig.1), sustainability revolves around space tourism at four different levels (Wilkinson, 1997); ‘Planning’, ‘Sustainability’, ‘Weak Signals’ and ‘Future Scenarios’.

‘Planning’ refers to the suggested modeling and scientific understanding of the plans laid out by the stakeholders (Dredge & Jenkins, 2007). Planning encompasses all actions, ideas, and collaboration initiatives from disciplines such as politics, history, and economics (Dredge & Jenkins, 2007). For instance, on July 14 2020, Orbite, a Seattle-based startup, announced its plans to establish a Spaceflight Gateway and Astronaut Training Complex in outer space that will offer luxury accommodations, dining and recreation for commercial astronauts along with their friends and family members (Werner, 2020). 

‘Sustainability’ is about the activities in compliance with Sustainable Development Goals (Broderick, 2009). This involves all sustainability indicators, operational actions, and environmental assessments (Dredge & Jenkins, 2007). ‘Weak Signals’ refers to the tentative ideas and technological innovations that have the potential to impact local areas (Coffman, 1997). These signals help in the development of new indicators and sustainable research initiatives for the policymaking process (Uskali, 2005). Organizations like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic are working closely with NASA in order to integrate sustainable practices in their future projects. One such initiative is the Green Propellant Infusion Mission (GPIM) that will be used in SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rockets (Rabbie, 2019). The goal of this mission is to provide a viable alternative to hydrazine, a highly toxic compound that is used in rocket fuel to power spacecraft and satellites (Spores, 2015). 

‘Future Scenarios’ refers to the long-term flexible voluntary agreements and global alliances (Kahn, 1965). A prominent example of a global agreement is the Paris Agreement (2016) on climate change where the long-term goal is to keep the global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels (Hulme, 2016). 

Additionally, in 1958, the United Nations established the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) (Brachet, 2012). The mission of this committee is “to review the scope of international cooperation in peaceful uses of outer space, to devise programmes in this field to be undertaken under United Nations auspices, to encourage continued research and the dissemination of information on outer space matters, and to study legal problems arising from the exploration of outer space.” (Qizhi, 1986). As of today, COPUOS oversees the execution of different United Nations agreements and treaties that are related to activities in outer space (Brachet, 2012). 

These four levels in the Sustainable Future Planning Framework should act in synergy with each other and help in guiding all the future developments of space tourism (Wilkinson, 1997). This framework can help in predicting the potential consequences of human activities and their impacts on future space tourism projects (Dredge & Jenkins, 2007). 

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Figure 1: Sustainable Future Planning Framework (Toivonen, 2017).  

Stakeholder Alignment Framework

A key framework suggested by Ehrenfreund and Peter (2009) stresses the importance of including all the key stakeholders, drivers, and influences in the long-term development of future space endeavors. The Stakeholder Alignment Framework (fig.2) focuses on defining all the relevant objectives and responsibilities for these stakeholders and ensuring long term cooperation among them (Ehrenfreund & Peter, 2009). In the space tourism industry, stakeholder relations are multidimensional and complex (Ehrenfreund & Peter, 2009). Four key stakeholders have been identified: government, industry, the scientific community, and the public (Ehrenfreund & Peter, 2009). 

Governments have the responsibility of fostering economic growth, social welfare, technological advancement, and national security (Peter, 2008). Space tourism allows countries to strengthen their foreign policies in the global context (Ehrenfreund , Peter, Schrogl, & Logsdon, 2010). Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) and other industries foster economic development and innovation in the space sector (Cameron, Seher & Crawley, 2011). The scientific community, on the other hand, is not directly involved in the decision-making process when it comes to space tourism (Ehrenfreund & Peter, 2009). Most of their responsibilities are often limited to ‘defining’ the scientific objectives related to space tourism (Peter, 2008). This happens because of conflicting interests between various scientific communities across the world (Ehrenfreund et al., 2010). The final stakeholder, the public, can be a powerful stakeholder when it comes to influencing governments to substantially increase the resources that are invested in the space tourism industry (Ehrenfreund & Peter, 2009). Given the high stakes of the space tourism industry, this framework, therefore, lays down the key responsibilities, global agreements, and voluntary measures of the different stakeholders making everyone accountable for their actions (Dredge & Jenkins, 2007). These relationships differ across countries and are heavily influenced by the overall development level (Ehrenfreund et al., 2010). The strategic planning of space tourism should be based on the alignment of these four stakeholders across two levels: ‘intranational’ and ‘international’ (Peter, 2008).  

Figure 2: Relationships among the stakeholders in the space tourism industry (Ehrenfreund & Peter, 2009). 

Performance Objectives Framework

The final framework (fig. 3) recommends that five key performance objectives must be examined  and should be included in the space tourism projects in order to make the industry more sustainable, accessible, and affordable. The five performance objectives are: Quality, Speed, Dependability, Flexibility, and Cost Efficiency (Ehrenfreund & Peter, 2009; Slack, 1994). 

Quality: Quality refers to the development of innovative technologies and practices to make space tourism considerably more sustainable (Jacobs, Chase, Aquilano, 2004). Developing high-quality technologies can not only reduce the costs of future space endeavors, but they can also help mitigate the internal (technological, market, political) and external risks (changes in economy) associated with space tourism (Tangen, 2005). Better quality can be achieved through stable agreements and regulations among the stakeholders (Slack, 1994). For example, North America and Europe are developing new technologies (MARs and HiPER respectively) that are based on artificial intelligence and electric propulsion to make future space missions more sustainable (Esper, 2005). 

Speed: Speed refers to how quickly the entire development process can take place (Slack, 1994). This objective is difficult to measure in terms of space tourism because of various factors like the technical complexity of missions (which includes cost overruns and mission delays), construction of large-scale infrastructures, and the decision-making process (Ehrenfreund & Peter, 2009). 

Dependability: Dependability refers to the level of trustworthiness among different stakeholders (Batista, 2012; Slack, 1994). Space tourism activities are largely dependent on resources, government support, cooperation among stakeholders (both at a domestic and international level), intellectual rights, and interconnectivity of design. and technical expertise (Ehrenfreund, Peter, 2009). Political issues, investment and financing issues, natural disasters and poor economic conditions make space tourism projects highly complex and highly dependent on legal issues and other regulations (Ehrenfreund & Peter, 2009; Webber, 2013). 

Flexibility: Flexibility refers to the level of adaptability among the different stakeholders (Batista, 2012; Slack, 1994). The space tourism industry, in general, is often considered as highly inflexible because agreements need to be passed around multiple times by different stakeholders (Ehrenfreund et al., 2010). However, adopting a modular design approach that is highly flexible in nature can create a wide range of opportunities and could potentially keep the space missions on track even when unexpected events like technical failures occur (Ehrenfreund & Peter, 2009). A prime example of an industry that has adopted a modular design approach over the last century is the auto industry (Lampón, Frigant, Cabanelas, 2019). Auto-manufactures have been able to design fundamentally complex systems by dividing the manufacturing process into smaller modules and integrating them for final assembly (Lampón, Cabanelas, González-Benito, 2017). 

Costs:  In general, space tourism is usually associated with high costs (Webber, 2013). Costs for this industry can be brought down by long-term planning of projects, performance management, innovative technology, and technical expertise (Batista, 2012). This performance objective is related to the concept of the Triple Bottom Line (Elkington, 1998). According to Elkington (1998), Triple Bottom Line measures a company’s impact across three dimensions: Environment, Social, and Economic. In other words, reducing the inputs or switching to greener technologies not only helps the environment in the grand scheme of things, but it also helps a company to cut down their costs and make profits in the long run (Elkington,1998). A good example of this is Virgin Galactic. Sir Richard Branson, the founder of the Virgin group, has already invested $3 billion of the corporation’s profits into developing ‘cleaner and more sustainable’ technologies (Burnham, n.d.). For instance, SpaceShipTwo is made up of carbon composite materials and rubber-based propellants making it lighter, which will, in turn, allow for better fuel efficiency (Stewart, 2010). The spacecraft would be powered by a ‘biofuel’ that is made up of kerosene and butanol (derived from algae) (Burnham, n.d.). Branson claims that using these technologies will lower the overall carbon cost of a spaceflight making it much more eco-efficient than a normal commercial flight (Burnham, n.d.). 

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Figure 3: Performance objectives of operational management (Operation Management Objectives, 2014). 

Recommendations

In order to make future space tourism activities affordable, accessible, and sustainable based on the different framework; the following measures are recommended to the stakeholders:

  • Speed: Focus should be on improving the sustainability initiatives through an efficient management system that aligns the different stakeholders across two levels: ‘intranational’ and ‘international’ (Ehrenfreund & Peter, 2009; Webber, 2013).  These initiatives should encompass various sustainability indicators, operational actions and environmental assessments as laid out in the Sustainable Future Planning Framework (Dredge & Jenkins, 2007). A strong alignment of these stakeholders at an ‘international’ level promotes sustainable space tourism in a country (Webber, 2013). On the other hand, strong alignment of the stakeholders at an international level can effectively result in a faster decision-making process and foster major space tourism initiatives on a global scale through partnerships and alliances (Ehrenfreund & Peter, 2009). 
  • Quality: Development of higher quality innovative technology through knowledge integration between major space powers and the pioneers of the space industry (SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, etc.) at a translational level should be promoted (Ehrenfreund & Peter, 2009). Strong planning which includes all actions, ideas and collaboration initiatives between the different stakeholders should also be prioritized (Dredge & Jenkins, 2007). 
  • Flexibility: This objective can be improved by identifying the potential weaknesses and coming up with a variety of ‘out of the box’ backup solutions at an economic and technological level (Webber, 2013). ‘Future Scenarios’ in the form of long-term flexible voluntary agreements and global alliances should be considered in order to increase the flexibility among the industrial leaders, governments, scientific community and the general public (Dredge & Jenkins, 2007).
  • Dependability:  In order to maximize the level of interdependency among the stakeholders, collaboration and technology exchange should be promoted at an international level (Ehrenfreund & Peter, 2009). Given that this criterion takes a long time to observe significant change(s); technological innovations, tentative ideas and other ‘Weak Signals’ should be identified early on in the policymaking process (Ehrenfreund & Peter, 2009; Dredge & Jenkins, 2007).
  • Cost: Cost efficiency in space tourism can be improved by optimizing the other performance objectives and through long term successful project management of different activities (Batista, 2012; Webber, 2013). Incorporating Triple Bottom Line 

Conclusion

Space tourism is currently in its nascent stages. While the industry surely has an exciting future ahead, there are several concerns about making it more accessible, affordable, and sustainable (Webber, 2013). Even though we are currently limited by the resources that are available to us to develop those technologies, taking the first steps through experimentation and international cooperation of the five performance objectives along with the integration of the four levels in the Sustainable Future Planning Framework will allow us to make long-term global space tourism activities more sustainable. It is, however, crucial to take into consideration the detrimental effects of space tourism before implementing new frameworks and policies which would require a clear alignment of all the major stakeholders both at national and international levels for the collective good of humanity (Peter, 2008; Webber, 2013). 

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