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The Environmental Impact of a Rocket Launch

Rocket launches are an integral part of our 21st-century world, but they also produce pollution that can accelerate climate change. One of the biggest surprises researchers found is that in the first stage of a rocket launch, around 116 tons of CO2 was emitted in just 165 seconds¹. This pollution then spread in the surrounding environment, affecting soil and water quality, and damaging vegetation. After several space shuttle launches, large amounts of perchlorate were found in nearby groundwater sources, posing a risk to human health. 

The fuel used by many rockets is UDMH (unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine), a very useful propellant for scientists. UDMH doesn't need a source of ignition, can be stored at room temperature, and releases a lot of energy. However, it is highly carcinogenic to humans and has been blamed for turning large areas into ecological disaster zones¹.

The space shuttle also used liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen as propellants for its main engines, which produced mostly water vapor and some nitrogen oxides. These emissions were less harmful than those from the solid rocket boosters, but they still contributed to global warming and ozone depletion.

The energy and resources used for a single space shuttle launch were also considerable. The space shuttle required about 1.59 million liters of liquid hydrogen and 629,000 liters of liquid oxygen for each launch, which had to be produced using electricity from fossil fuels. The solid rocket boosters used about 500,000 kilograms of propellant each, which had to be manufactured using chemicals and metals that also had environmental costs. The total cost of a space shuttle launch was estimated at about $450 million, which could have been invested in other ways to benefit society and the environment.


(1) The pollution caused by rocket launches - BBC Future. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20220713-how-to-make-rocket-launches-less-polluting.

(2) Impact Report 2022 - Tesla. https://www.tesla.com/impact.

(3) What Is the Carbon Footprint of the Space Program? - Treehugger. https://www.treehugger.com/what-is-the-carbon-footprint-of-the-space-program-4857306.

(4) One SpaceX Rocket Launch Produces the Equivalent of 395 Transatlantic .... https://championtraveler.com/news/one-spacex-rocket-launch-produces-the-equivalent-of-395-transatlantic-flights-worth-of-co2-emissions/.

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