Astronaut cosplay: The earthly impacts of space tourism on the border
Until recently, the Figure 2 Ranch was best known as the site of the last Native American battle against the Texas Rangers. Mescalero Apaches fought under the banner of their recently deceased leader Victorio in the winter of 1881, resisting forced relocation and genocidal violence in a sprawling landscape of purple mountains, 26 miles north of what is now Van Horn, Texas.
Today, the ranch is owned by the richest person in the world, Jeff Bezos, and is better known as the launch site for Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital rocket ship. Bezos, who served as CEO for the e-commerce site Amazon over the past 27 years, stepped down from the position in early July to focus on his work with Blue Origin, among other ventures. He and three others are scheduled to travel briefly into outer space Tuesday morning on an 11-minute flight before landing back in dusty West Texas.
Bezos is not the only billionaire to become enamored with visions of commercial space travel and he’s not the only one to choose the borderlands as his local base for liftoff. Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson recently traveled 51 miles above the Earth’s surface to what the Federal Aviation Administration defines as outer space. The launch was based out of Spaceport America, a location 64 miles north of Las Cruces, New Mexico.
Dubbed “the first purpose-built commercial spaceport in the world,” on its website, Spaceport America is meant to be a key node for the future of space tourism: recreational voyages to the edge of the cosmos, for those who can afford it.
“(It’s) the haves and have nots,” Culbertson County Sheriff Oscar Carrillo said. “I don’t think any local around here will have the funds to buy a ticket on this big roller coaster ride.”
But even if borderlanders aren’t passengers on board, these extraterrestrial efforts by Bezos and Branson have meaningful economic, environmental and cultural impacts on the ground.
The haves and the have nots: local economic impacts of space tourism
On the morning of July 11, a crowd of more than 70 people gathered at the Rio Grande Theatre in downtown Las Cruces to watch the launch of Virgin Galactic’s #UNITY22 rocket. As the livestream began, a countdown flashed on the screen. Audience members excitedly chanted along, “3, 2, 1,” then burst into peals of laughter when it turned out that the countdown led into a promotional video for Spaceport America.
“It’s exciting, it’s history in the making,” said Las Cruces resident Juan Aviles, sitting outside the theater before the launch began. “The future of space travel, here in Las Cruces.”
But as the livestream dragged on, including at one point Richard Branson reading aloud a lengthy letter to his mother, one audience member loudly groaned “it’s an hour-long commercial!”
Beyond video advertisements for the Spaceport, the watch party featured a slew of free promotional swag for attendees — toy rockets, frisbees, rocket ship temporary tattoos and wristbands — all framing New Mexico as the place for space.
The state of New Mexico has invested heavily into the viability of commercial space travel; state taxpayers footed $220 million toward the cost of Spaceport America, with more than $90 million of that coming from Doña Ana County, where Las Cruces is located.
Although Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin project is largely privately funded, the billionaire has aggressively sought multi-billion dollar contracts with NASA in a rivalry with SpaceX’s Elon Musk. Musk, the Tesla CEO and entrepreneur who has rivaled Bezos as the richest person in the world, has also set his sights on outer space travel with his company SpaceX that has a launch site near Brownsville, Texas.
The astronomical cost of recreational space travel means that only the most affluent will be able to buy a seat onboard the spacecrafts. A ticket on Branson’s ship costs $250,000, while a spot on Jeff Bezos’ forthcoming Blue Origin voyage sold at auction for $28 million. (The winning bidder had a scheduling conflict and will take a future flight, according to reports.)
Las Cruces native Dolores Archuleta said she’d accept an invitation to board the spacecraft “in a heartbeat.” But she said the costs make that unrealistic.
“A lot of people can’t afford it — down the line it has to be cheaper,” she said.
In Doña Ana County the median household income was $40,973 as of 2019, and 41% of children live in poverty. But an increased presence of the aeronautics industry in the region could entail a significant economic boon, according to Tom Fullerton, a professor of economics at the University of Texas at El Paso.
“Space tourism is a big gamble,” he said, expressing optimism that the risk will pay off. Fullerton predicted that the two nearby sites for commercial space travel will mean more jobs throughout the borderlands.
“A lot of the impact here in El Paso, and in Juárez as well, is in terms of aerospace manufacturing,” he said. “If any of these new ideas become commercially viable, a lot of the parts will probably be manufactured in this region.”
For the restaurant and hotel industry, the highly publicized launches are already paying off.
Carrillo said hotels have been sold out in Van Horn for weeks in anticipation of Tuesday’s launch. “Our restaurant folks are excited about it, they’re extending their hours to accommodate all the people coming in,” he said.
The website for Visit Las Cruces predicted that the Virgin Galactic launch would have an economic impact on Las Cruces of more than $400,000 , and Cody Johnson of the New Mexico Tourism Department said that the July 11 launch ended up having a media value of at least $3.5 million.
But will the space tourism gamble fully pay for itself? “It’s too early to say,” said Fullerton.
The environmental toll of commercial space travel
Both Bezos and Branson paint their spaceflight companies as environmentally conscious, with Branson’s Virgin Galactic rocket plane described on the company’s site as transforming the “cost, safety and environmental impact,” of space launches. Meanwhile, Blue Origin touts the future of the commercial space industry on their website as a way “to preserve Earth.”
Aerospace scientists told El Paso Matters that the space launches do have a cost for the climate, but the true scale of environmental impacts are not yet known.
“This industry at the moment is operating primarily without any oversight, without any governance when it comes to global environmental impacts,” said Darin Toohey, a professor of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder. Toohey has researched the impact of aircraft on the climate for decades.
“It’s very likely (that) 10 years from now the environmental impacts that I can speak to … are not going to be that severe,” he said, but expressed concern with the lack of research and oversight on the industry. “We don’t solve problems by ignoring them.”
Toohey said the problem with the Virgin Galactic space launch now isn’t with carbon dioxide. The solid rocket fuels are made up of hydrocarbons, but they leave behind a byproduct called black carbon, also known as soot. Those particles can stay within the upper atmosphere for years trapping heat.
Michael Mills, a project scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric research, co-authored a study with Toohey in 2010 examining the impacts of rocket emissions.
“The emissions of black carbon are a big concern, because they can stay in the upper atmosphere for many years and potentially disrupt the ozone layer and the climate system by absorbing sunlight,” Mills said.
He said while emissions like black carbon already demonstrate climate impacts, there needs to be more research on Blue Origin’s use of liquid hydrogen for fuel.
“I don’t think there’s been a study of how much of an impact multiple launches a day (fueled by liquid hydrogen) would have on the total water vapor in the upper atmosphere,” Mills said.
Although Bezos recently created a fund that designates $1 billion annually to fight climate change, some have lamented the hypocrisy of the initiative considering the pollution track record at Amazon. An online petition on the site Change.org has gained more than 160,000 signatures, calling for Bezos to not be allowed to return to earth once he enters outer space. The petition organizer said he wanted to highlight income inequality and other social justice issues.
Aeronautics and the cultural landscape of the border
The giant heads of Jeff Bezos and his brother Mark gaze toward the sky in a 10-foot tall photorealistic mural recently painted by El Paso artist Fernando Fernandez on the side of a building in downtown Van Horn. The mural also depicts the launching rocket ship and Blue Origin’s signature symbol, a feather.
“The Blue Origin feather is a symbol of the perfection of flight. It represents freedom, exploration, mobility and progress,” declares the Blue Origin website. The symbol is increasingly common in the small town and can be spotted at locations that range from the local McDonald’s to banners that hang in front of a dilapidated church.
While in Van Horn the local role of aeronautics is visible through public art, in New Mexico it is part of the state’s efforts to rebrand its image in the hopes of stimulating tourism to the region.
“We have a rich history with (science and exploration and technology) here in New Mexico,” said Cody Johnson, spokesperson for the New Mexico Tourism Department. “We’re really going to be leaning into that in future promotions and campaigns.”
In El Paso, a key cultural impact of the commercial space industry may be UTEP’s increasing position as a research hub for aeronautics, Fullerton said.
UTEP has recently shared several press releases related to its burgeoning role in aeronautics: a new degree in a Bachelor of Science in Aerospace and Aeronautical Engineering, $2 million in funding from NASA to develop technology for mining ice from the moon and inclusion in the Universities Space Research Association, a nonprofit corporation of universities committed to space-related research.
“UTEP is becoming a leader in research to advance space exploration,” UTEP president Heather Wilson said in the press release for the USRA announcement. Wilson is a former secretary of the United States Air Force and currently serves on the board of advisors for Blue Origin.
Socially, the presence of the commercial space industry is already changing things in Van Horn. Sheriff Carrillo described how Blue Origin employees hang out at the local watering hole.
“The Sheldons, you know the geeky guys in the plaids — I call them the Sheldons,” Carrillo said. “It’s like ‘Cheers,’ everybody knows your name — the ranchers, the Sheldons, farmers, law enforcement, border patrol mingling together at the bar.”
Cover photo: A sign heralding the Blue Origin Launch hangs outside of a dilapidated church in Van Horn, Texas. (Danielle Prokop/El Paso Matters)