Guy Adams: Green space travel? I don't think so

LA Notebook

Thursday 10 December 2009 01:00
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You probably won't know whether to laugh or cry if you're reading this on one of the "pendolino" trains which helped Virgin clock up a higher complaint rate this year than every other British rail operator combined, but Sir Richard Branson is about to inflict an entire new transport industry upon mankind.

The bearded entrepreneur was in Los Angeles this week to showcase the VSS Enterprise, a spaceship in which, by 2011, he plans to begin ferrying punters to the outer reaches of planet Earth's atmosphere for £125,000 each – a fare which makes a saver return to Crewe plus a prawn sandwich from the buffet car seem like a bargain.

It's difficult not to admire the dynamism that brought him to this point. And it was actually rather affecting, at Monday's unveiling in the Mojave Desert, to meet the "future astronauts" who boldly intend to entrust their lives to a spacecraft developed by a man whose state-of-the-art locomotives are unable to negotiate fallen leaves.

My ardour, however, began to cool dramatically when I gazed down Sir Richard's press literature and saw a section touting, ludicrously, the project's environmental credentials. "It's almost zero carbon output," he was quoted saying. "We can put people into space for less carbon than, say, a flight from New York to LA and back. I think in time, we'll almost definitely get to zero."

There was no scientific source mooted for these extravagant claims. Neither was there any explanation offered as to how VSS Enterprise, powered largely by nitrous oxide, can ever hope to be either "carbon neutral," or remotely environmentally friendly.

Sir Richard knows a bit about "greenwashing," though. After a life promoting airliners, he recently made David Cameron-style trips to the Arctic to "raise awareness" about the very global warming his companies exacerbate.

This looks like more of the same: space travel may be a brilliant way to relieve rich people of money; it could even change the future of transport; but there's no point trying to argue that flying sightseers 65 vertical miles into space, for fun, will ever be in the slightest bit sustainable.

Arnie glows under lights

I also bumped into private-jet-loving environmentalist Arnold Schwarzenegger at Sir Richard's launch. Under bright lights he appeared (far more obviously than on telly) to be using an unconvincing brand of copper hair dye. UK politicians pulling this kind of stunt might by extension be considered untrustworthy. But here in La-la land, the Governator's affection for male cosmetics will almost certainly strike a chord with locals.

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