SpaceX’s recent development, the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR), aims to revolutionise the civil aerospace industry by providing a reusable, two-stage rocket for commercial aviation, allowing passengers travel to “anywhere on Earth in under an hour”. Despite its potential, questions still surround whether we need a better connected world and if there is consumer demand for it. Can the BFR technology be applied elsewhere to benefit a wider collection of stakeholders and is the use of liquid methane (LCH4) an ethically responsible alternative aviation fuel?
A BETTER CONNECTED WORLD
The benefit of rapid Earth-to-Earth travel is a drastically reduced transport time, yielding large improvements for global businesses, whose main interests are organisational efficiency and profit. The BFR’s proposed travel time from New York to Shanghai is 45 times faster than a conventional flight, which would enhance the business opportunities offered by commercial aviation, as emphasised in a report by the Air Transport Action Group . For example, faster air transport enables managers to meet face-to-face more quickly, which is essential for forming international client relationships, and attracts high quality, skilled labour regardless of geographical location.
Aside from acting as an Earth-to-Earth transportation system, the development of the technology from the BFR could also benefit other sectors. Primarily, Musk (the SpaceX founder) has penciled in plans to send over 4000 high speed internet satellites into low Earth orbit by 2024, offering connectivity to many remote areas. Musk aims to do this by modifying BFR technology, meaning the positive effects from the development could be felt by a wider audience than just those who use it for rapid travel. The utilitarian view, a school of consequentialist thought, is therefore that the BFR’s development is ethically justified as the additional benefits to less immediate stakeholders (resulting from the BFR’s technology crossing over into other sectors) acts to outweigh any negative aspects.
THE PROS OF LIQUID METHANE (LCH4)
The BFR’s chosen fuel, LCH4, yields environmental advantages that would help Musk achieve his end goals of transitioning the world away from traditional fossil fuels and combating global warming. Firstly, achieving commercial air transport with LCH4 rockets rather than kerosene fuelled civil aircrafts would delay the inevitable depletion of kerosene supplies, which the industry currently depends upon, by providing a suitable alternative aviation fuel. Secondly, LCH4 produces less carbon dioxide during combustion when compared to kerosene, emphasising that the choice of the BFR’s fuel is in the interests of environmental stakeholders, such as ACARE’s 2050 carbon dioxide reduction targets. These two arguments ethically justify the project, according to the utilitarian school of thought, because the consequence of using LCH4 is the realisation of Musk’s sustainability ambitions.
THE CONS OF LIQUID METHANE (LCH4)
However, have to consider that the use of LCH4 may not go far enough in addressing the environmental concerns surrounding commercial air travel since it can be considered a fossil fuel and still has negative environmental effects, especially when concentrated in the lower atmosphere. For example, 658.4 tonnes of carbon dioxide are produced per launch, which limits the success of using LCH4 in reaching Musk’s goal and undermines the utilitarian ethics of the project. Additionally, whilst SpaceX’s stakeholders would argue LCH4 could be sourced from renewable, biomass decomposition, this would reduce agricultural resources available for growing food in a world where 12% of people suffer from hunger. Therefore, from a Kantian, deontological viewpoint, the ethics of using LCH4 to fuel the BFR could be perceived as irresponsible. This is because, while the majority of humanity will not use the transport system, they would be disadvantaged in the attempt to achieve Musk’s goal, regardless of whether it is reached.
The major selling point for Earth-to-Earth travel using the BFR is large reductions in duration time, which relies upon launch sites being situated close to cities, which introduces the issue of noise pollution. Research suggests that noise pollution from transport has links to health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, cognitive impairment and increased stress. Rocket launches produce significantly higher decibel levels of sound compared to commercial aircraft take-offs, as well as sonic booms when they break the sound barrier, which exacerbates the health risk to millions of civilians in major cities. This alludes to the deontological argument that negative effects experienced by the surrounding civilians (who may never reap the benefits of the program) invalidates the positive ethics of achieving Earth-to-Earth transport in under an hour.
IS THE BFR THE BEST AND ONLY WAY FORWARD?
According to a survey from the IATA, civil aviation passengers prioritise onboard service and comfort, which would be lost with rocket travel. On top of this, dissatisfaction over travel time was not mentioned as an issue, raising the question of whether passengers desire such a rapid transport service enough to justify its expense. SpaceX as a stakeholder is primarily interested in organic growth and reaching Musk’s end goal of transitioning the world away from fossil fuels , yet the BFR project is not the only trick up Musk’s sleeve. Should investment be directed towards an alternative sustainability project that holds more appeal to a wider range of people, but still achieves Musk’s goals? If one considers that the means to achieving the goal is significant (deontological ethics), the BFR may not be an ethically responsible choice.
The development of a rapid Earth-to-Earth transport system would be ethically responsible, if its implementation was successful because Musk’s ultimate end goal of combating global warming through the use of LCH4 would be realised.
However, the unrealism of the project emphasises little thought may have been given to the means by which Musk’s end goal is reached, suggesting ethical irresponsibility. This indicates that the detrimental effects of using LCH4 as an alternative fuel; subjecting cities to severe noise pollution and concentrating resources on a project that few will benefit from, are significant enough to limit the ethical responsibility of this ambitious project.