One Small step for space, one large leap for space geeks
Yes, I went to Van Horn for the New Shepherd launch of Jeff Bezos and crew. I have read all the backlash about money waste etc, and that he should do more for people, etc. I agree with that argument, but I still think it was a great milestone and one Jeff Bezos should be immensely proud of. There is only the first time once and this launch was for the record books being their first manned launch, oldest, youngest, richest people, etc and I could not miss it.
People who are hating on this launch are choking on the cherry, and missing out on the sundae.
Private companies know how to trim waste and maximize profits, something federal programs have always been behind on. When someone is personally financing things to the tune of a BILLION DOLLARS A YEAR you will be sure that they are getting the top people and top designers and project managers money can buy to make sure they have a world-class product at a fraction of the cost of the government agency can with grants and taxpayer money.
The government’s role is to govern, rule, and write legislation, not fund science projects off this planet. The government used to be the sole builder of schools and hospitals too. Privatization allows for innovation and advances free from government red tape and financial governance. Private capital advances research and science much faster.
My main concerns are the long-term environmental impact of shooting rockets into space from a location and pollution in the atmospheric heavens, I know NASA has been doing it for decades in Florida, and it seems fine. I am much more forgiving of space visits where we bring everything back like a camping trip than the old ways of leaving space junk as you go up and burning gazillions of gallons of jet fuel. I am not a believer in colonizing anything, which includes other planets! We have a lot of development to do in recyclable products and environmental impact before we start bringing all our waste products 1000’s of miles into outer space just to strip resources from another place to feed our additions or egos here on this planet.
I was there on July 20th, 2021 with a few hundred other space/rocket junkies and media reporters at first light waiting for the 8:00 am flight with the sun peaking over the mountains. It seems silly and people that were not there often do not get it, but it was amazing in more ways than just burning money and I will tell you why.
Jeffery Preston Bezos went from being a burned-out software salesman, who started an online used book business in his garage to being his own boss. To be able to fund and build out his own space company to fulfill a childhood dream is a phenomenal achievement. You don’t have to like Amazon.com as a business model, or the thought of space travel to realize and admire what he has accomplished since 1994. He does not come from generational wealth, he turned a side-hustle into one of the largest companies in the world and became the richest person on the planet as a byproduct of owning so much stock. What have you accomplished since 1994 to reach your life goals?
Seeing a rocket launch, even very far away as we were, sonic roars across the desert valley, and a graceful parachute landing is just something you have to witness to understand. On paper, it seems silly, but in reality, seeing 20 minutes of success from weeks and months of planning and scientific calculations getting pulled off successfully in the middle of nowhere is quite magical to watch.
I agree 100% with FAA saying they are not astronauts unless they do something to better the planet, research, etc, and are trained professionals. Going somewhere for 10 mins does not give you the same medal as a professional. Playing a cop in a movie for a few weeks on a film set does not make you a cop. Being strapped to a recliner seat for a 10 min ride and a few minutes weightless is no astronaut training or doing scientific research.
It’s amazing that they have gotten space travel so simple and comfortable, but it works against them too in this regard that they made it “too easy” and automated an experience.
I am sure when world travel was still a life-risking adventure that rich people wanted prestigious medals from geographical societies for going to “The Orient”, Africa, the Amazon, or the Poles too. Those are no longer super-spectacular, rare feats as travel and the world have changed over the last few hundred years. I imagine in my life with these new and relatively cheaper ways to go to or above the Kármán line there should be a new star visitor designation (Greek: astroepisképtis) and not the designation of an astronaut (Greek: meaning a star sailor). Insperation4 I think is an exception, and I do think they should meet the astronaut criteria as they are being trained, will spend multiple days in space, and do research.
I would love to go on one of these flights one day, preferably higher than the Kármán line and in orbit, but I think I need to work on my credit score/wealth building a bit before I can get the financing together for something like this…so, well, out of this world :-).
Impact on the Local Community
This is a touchy subject. I have talked to a few locals during my stops there, and they are all great people. Van Horn is a great little town, but at the end of the day, it is a truck-stop town. Most locals seem excited or indifferent, but all wish there would be a little more community outreach by Blue Origin. I have heard they send reps to city council meetings only when they have an agenda item that concerns them.
There are no four/five-star hotels, and the only one worth mentioning is a boutique hotel (El Capitan), a two-story Adobe-style building with limited rooms and a dozen or so 1 and 2-star motels, some of which are not even part of a big chain or take online bookings.
Let’s be honest, millionaires and billionaires don’t want to “rough it” on their way to space with “commoners” like me in a Days Inn with free HBO. That is just a fact. Not in LA, not in New York, and not in this little town.
My hope is that they can open a gift shop in town in partnership with the city (I do not think Van Horn even has a visitor bureau right now) and hire a few locals to have a good-faith united front for tourists and visitors that are curious about the town and Blue Origin’s projects in the area.
Ariane Cornell said in their press conference before NS16 that “Van Horn is our home”, but I do not see that. There are no homes in the city limits that some space engineer or slick space project manager making 6+ figures would live in that I saw in that town, even if it was paid for by the company. All the new stuff I saw was being built on Launch Site One or on the ranch nearby under the mountain (Sierra Diablo), Bezos owns that houses his 10,000-year clock called the 10,000 Year Clock Project.
Logistically it just makes sense to be closer to the worksite (Launch Site One), and then fly out to their primary homes and other offices out of state for meetings or time with their families. Blue Origin has HQ in Kent, WA, near Seatle, and their leadership, is all rich, highly educated, and very white. Van Horn is certainly none of those things. I imagine they feel a little out of place in this town, like a fish out of water. If Van Horn was their home there would be brand new apartment complexes, townhomes, housing subdivisions, or company housing with state-of-the-art gym/rec centers, yoga studios, and the like, just like any modern city would have to attract and retain ivy-schooled engineers and aerospace scientists, even in West Texas.
Security is an odd setup, no official security company like you would find at a government installation or oil refinery, but very present both at Launch Site One (Corn Ranch) and the nearby ranch (Figure 2 Ranch). Unmarked pickups and Jeeps just sit on access points as a guard dog at the parameters ready to pounce. I guess that is just how billionaires roll. I guess being originally a personal project it seems to have just been extended to this security agreement to the Blue Origin launch site as well. Probably ex-military/Special Ops, and probably not hired or live locally either.
I did not have any encounters with them as the windows were all blacked out (even the front windscreens) and I did not do anything other than stay on the public road. I know had I been out of line I am sure they would have run me out in no time. I did not feel like stopping during my drives by the Figure 2 ranch or taking pics of that place partly for that reason, but also just out of respect as that is more a private residence of Mr. Bezos and I am not a paparazzi, just a travel writer. I am sure there are hidden cameras everywhere or eyes in the sky too that I did not see to protect these public access points and the massive investments inside the gates.
Blue Origin claims to have 250 employees in “West Texas”, which is a very broad term. How many of them are working remotely or commuting to El Paso to have a social life? The only employees I saw (some driving Rivian R1T pickups before they were for sale to the public), and other high-end SUVs the two days I visited Launch Site One were coming from the Figure 2 ranch 5-7 miles north. There seems to have some construction work being done and some small bungalows scattered around the main mansion/ranch house with floor to ceiling glass windows to see the morning sunrise and the mountain in the “backyard”. Their workforce footprint seems to be kept to their little Blue heaven on these two ranches.
My worry is that as Van Horn becomes more well-known because of these launches developers move in and drive up the housing costs, gentrify and locals won’t be able to afford to live there anymore. It would just become a tourist stop for wannabe space cowboys and socialites to say they went there to “Bezosville” for selfies or some social media content. Realtor.com currently has 33 homes for sale in Van Horn with the median home price being just over 83k, some in the 50k’s, none of them luxurious, very basic cribs. Ranchland outside Van Horn is asking for under 1K/acre! Bezos and co. have been there 20 years and you can still get homes/land for peanuts?
I do know a local woman that is working on fixing up a house near downtown to rent out as an Airbnb or short-term rental. It is tempting as in an investment property area, but with the nearest home improvement retailer 100 miles away it is a tough task to do a home renovation. I also live 560 miles away, so would have to hire a property manager, etc. I do not see any real catalyst yet for growth in this market. If not Blue, who?
Van Horn is not Park City, UT (home to the Sun Dance film festival) which is a cool western town to visit near Salt Lake City. It is not Orlando, FL with Disney World and the beach and other things to do in the area for families. This is not Pigeon Forge, TN where a beloved (wealthy) local created a theme park in the form of Dollywood to grow the local economy where she grew up.
On the one hand, Blue Origin owes Van Horn nothing, as it is a private project on private land and outside the city limits. They are only required to pay the state and county taxes, permit fees, etc just like all the other millionaire ranch/landowners in Culberson County and Texas in general. On the other hand, they are just 25 miles from a rather poor town that could really use an injection of jobs, education, a better housing market, and opportunities for a better life where they are.
The million-dollar question remains, how to best go about doing that?
To put things into perspective about Van Horn, there is no Walmart (or HEB, Target, etc), no theater or cinema. No shopping or retail malls, Starbucks (or any coffee shop), or anything we take for granted living in a medium or large Texas city. Ironically there is most probably also no Amazon Prime either unless it comes from El Paso a few times a week. There is a small grocery store(Porters) for food and fruits and vegetables, a few car service businesses, and a couple of small restaurants/bars, nothing fancy. There are about 2,500 people, mostly kids and the elderly as the college kids go off to school or families move out to find work in bigger cities.
Van Horn is located pretty much 100 miles from Fort Stockton to the east and 100 miles from El Paso to the west. When transportation was much slower before modern cars and the interstate, 100 miles was a day’s journey and they provided a logical place to stay the night and leave with a fresh horse or tank of gas. Today the town is bookended by a Love’s and a Pilot Travel Center which are mega-size gas stations that provide a stopping point for truckers and RVers to tank up, get food, have a shower, etc. The first time I went that way I just flew by it as 100 miles to El Paso is just a little over an hour’s drive. There is no point of interest reason to stop there unless you need gas or a snack as you pass through.
When people think of rustic West Texas towns they think of Marfa, Alpine, Marathon, or lodging options closer to Big Bend National Park, not a highway truck-stop town on IH-10 that has seen better days.
Now I know I went there for the most high-profile launch (NS16), the company’s first manned mission with Jeff Bezos and others. The future flights might not get any press, or less and less as they become more commonplace. Charter busses will just ferry customers and their families from the regional airport (where “PJ” private jets land) and whisk them away to “Blueland” for astronaut training, do the flight, and back to the airport without all the fanfare or ever seeing the city of Van Horn at all.
I believe if Blue Origin were to make a legit play into the tourist arena (hotel, B.O. space museum, etc), it would be on or near their launch site in the valley area 20+ miles away from the city and use the most high-tech experience (robots, Alexa-everything, driverless shuttles, solar, 3D printed homes, etc) and that might not provide many real local jobs. It’s not likely a Grand Hyatt will spring up in Van Horn or the desert with 1,000 rooms any time soon that would employ hundreds of people full-time.
Blue Origin has enough land out there (165,000 acre Corn Ranch!) to have their own hotels (or lease land to a developer like “Freedom (Holiday) Inns” do on US military bases) add space observation towers, or what have you. They could put in their own PJ landing strip if they do not have one already. They had helicopters and commercial drones flying around for the rocket launch inspecting things and for the live feed video of the event, so they control their own airspace. They can have their own zip code and build a space visitor city from scratch if they wanted to spend a little money that way. Some examples are the way Disney basically built Anaheim, CA or the King Ranch heirs helped establish Kingsville, Texas for their employees to self-govern. If you build it they will come.
Even if they have a dozen flights a year with 4-6 people each, it does not really legitimize too much more growth in the hospitality area at this point. Unless they have other cards up their sleeve for this location to be a destination spot for ultra-wealthy space fans who would want a resort experience, golf links, day spas, etc, and that is really not done in West Texas.
It is more logical to fly people in and out. Hwy 54, while the main state road does have at least one wild dip and a twisty road, I followed a blacked-out charter bus part of the way and it was rocking and swaying a good deal. It did have clearance to go into Launch Site One the day before the launch, so it must have been full of VIPs or their families. It is a fantastically scenic road and watching the sun come up and mountains around as you drive north. It is used by other ranch owners and they might not want heavy traffic with tour busses, etc if it starts becoming a big deal. The infrastructure is “soft”, and not really ready for the space-age, outside of Launch Site One. Beyond the site Hwy 54 goes to the Guadalupe Mountains National Park and the famous Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, so there are legit, nationally acclaimed natural wonders under 50-100 miles from the valley they shoot this rocket project from. It really is a nice, somewhat remote part of Texas that Bezos must have gotten for a steal 20 years ago.
It is still a relatively young and new operation and creating a whole public-focused space tourism operation from a personal science project Bezos has been funding there since 2000 is quite a leap. The new Launch Site One gate and markers are pretty new and I think are more for their VIP guests to look like a “big time” space outfit than to impress highway visitors. This project was kind of in stealth till they planned to send the richest man in the world to space and start selling tickets to other wealthy people. One failed mission could scrap or move the whole operation somewhere else as well. I am old enough to have watched the NASA Challenger disaster live on TV in 1986, mistakes happen. It is still a new frontier and anything can happen and there is a limited pool of people wanting to spend $20million+ for a 10-minute ride barely into space.
West Texas is littered with ghost towns that were started with dreams and some science where silver or oil was said to be that did not pan out to be big bucks. I think Blue Origin is just taking a conservative and cautious approach right now. If Bezos has taken the time to plan and build a 10,000-year clock, I will bet he has some epic blueprints in his safe for other large projects in or around space tourism yet to be revealed that will be just as ambitious.
Blue Origin also tests larger space cargo rockets in Florida for the New Glen and moon lander projects. So far Launch Site One seems to just be for the New Shepherd, and the 6-seat space tourist rocket missions.
My hopes for Van Horn are huge, I see it has the potential to market itself as more than a two-truck-stop town. I love finding small-town gems that others overlook or dismiss. I just am not clear where they meet with Blue Origins’ space future. My initial feelings are that Blue Origin is dancing with them now as they are the only girl at the dance, and not so much that they really want or need them.
Big Dreamers in Little Towns
Blue Origin – near Van Horn, West Texas
Space X – Boca Chica, South Texas, an unincorporated township (Musk wants to legally change the name to Starbase, Texas) see my thought here >>
Virgin Galactic – Truth or Consequences, South West New Mexico
I plan to visit all three of these towns and recommend ideas. I do not think there is a one-for-all solution, but they all do look really similar on the outside. They are all landing pads for billionaire space dreams in some of the poorest, remotest counties in Texas and New Mexico.
All three of these “space towns” will have to figure out how they evolve going forward.