Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, has said his brief sojourn into space gave him a newfound appreciation of the fragility of our ravaged planet, and that the way to protect it from further pollution is to move all heavy industry into space.
Journalists have described the relocation of heavy industry to space as the “dumbest idea ever”, and suggested that after the pollution which his company Amazon has generated across Earth, the natural next step is for him to try and pollute space.
But what does he mean, and why is he saying it? Is it possible? Could there be any real benefits? Is he a visionary, or delusional? Will his comments seem just as inane in a thousand years’ time?
The Independent spoke to space science experts and a philosopher, to examine the thinking behind Bezos’ plan and the possibility of it coming to fruition.
But before we explore their responses, let’s look exactly at what Bezos said.
In an NBC interview immediately after returning to Earth, asked what the trip meant to the wider world, Bezos replied: “Listen, we have to build a road to space so that our kids and their kids can build the future.
“We live on this beautiful planet. We saw this – you can’t imagine how thin the atmosphere is when you see it from space. We live in it and it looks so big. It feels like this atmosphere is huge and we can use it and disregard it and treat it poorly. When you get up there and you see it, you see how tiny it is and how fragile it is.
“We need to take all heavy industry, all polluting industry, and move it into space, and keep Earth as this beautiful gem of a planet that it is.”
“Now that’s going to take decades and decades to achieve. But you have to start. Big things start with small steps. We need reusable rocket vehicles and we need to practise with them. That’s what this sub-orbital tourist mission allows us to do – to practice over and over. This is the very beginning of that and it’s exciting.”
While the irony of Bezos’ newfound appreciation of the delicate nature of our planet has not been lost on those pointing out the huge environmental toll of the consumerism Amazon perpetuates, the new sense of scale Bezos alludes to is a noted psychological phenomenon among astronauts.
It is called the “overview effect”, in which voyagers to space when looking back at the world far below them sometimes discover a profound connection to the Earth and the universe, along with exasperation for the trifling issues being fought over on our home planet.
But it is also open to interpretation – based on your pre-existing values and place on Earth – and has previously been described as being like a “Rorschach test for what you believe in”.
Perhaps it comes as no surprise that a man worth $200bn acquired largely through the sale of manufactured goods sees the future through a lens of manufacturing.
But even if it were possible, is Bezos’ quest really the best way of dealing with polluting industries?
Philosopher Roman Krznaric, the author of The Good Ancestor: How to Think Long Term in a Short-Term World, believes Bezos’ plan is, for now, a distraction from the existential threats we’re already facing.
He told The Independent: “A good mountaineer knows that you should always have your base camp in order before you attempt a risky peak. Well, we certainly haven’t got base camp Earth in order yet.
“I’m all for jetting off to Mars and sending heavy industry into space – but only once we’ve first learned to live within the ecological boundaries of the one planet we know that sustains life.
“Heading for the stars is not just extremely risky business but distracts us from dealing with the urgent problems we’re facing right here right now, especially the climate crisis.”
He added: “I’m happy for Bezos, Branson, Musk and their super-rich friends to be space tourists, but let’s not make colonising space the ultimate goal of the human race.”
There are clearly numerous obstacles to beginning to manufacture goods in space, but John Bridges, professor of planetary science at the University of Leicester, is not convinced Bezos assertion of just “decades and decades” is based on a solid scientific foundation.
He told The Independent: “Before we even start to think seriously about this in any sort of timeframe, the space science industries need to develop what we call In Situ Resource Utilisation (ISRU).
“That includes extracting water and metals from lunar regolith (the surface of the Moon) and perhaps asteroids.
“ISRU is still at a very early stage – there is an interesting experiment called MOXIE on the Perseverance rover to extract oxygen but it is still very early days to be considering this.”
However, he didn’t write off Bezos’ ambitions. He said: “I think we need visionaries to put out long term ideas, controversial or otherwise.”
Another consideration is the huge costs involved in even beginning to move heavy industry to Space.
Dr Joan Pau Sanchez Cuartielles, a senior lecturer in astrodynamics and mission design at the School of Aerospace, Transport and Manufacturing, at Cranfield University in the UK, said: “My first immediate thought is that the added cost of moving polluting industry into space may be higher than investing in less polluting alternative industry.
“Of course, Bezos talks about many decades from now and access to space may eventually become relatively cheap.
“Nevertheless, I doubt it may eventually be worth it. Space manufacturing will certainly be very advantageous to access to manufactured products in space and some industries may find the microgravity conditions of Earth orbit advantageous for some manufacturing processes. Some elements that are rare in the Earth’s crust may feasibly be more accessible in space.
“However, it seems hard to believe that polluting industries may move to space, simply to pollute somewhere else [to] avoid the costs of polluting here.”
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