Note: Click on thumbnail pictures for larger versions.
Leave it to bureaucrats to make a place sound unappealing. In its environmental assessment (pdf; large file warning) of the Blue Origin West Texas Commercial Launch Site 20 miles North of Van Horn, the FAA describes the surrounding scenery as a "visual and aesthetic resource" of seemingly low value. No need to translate for this Ohio boy who is used to living in various dark shades of green -- this desert is so boring and ugly that it would be painful to see it. It was with this frame of mind that I set out from El Paso to visit the site on Sunday morning after after the end of the 2006 X Prize Cup.
Van Horn is a small desert town of 2,435 people about 120 miles East of El Paso. The town is basically a large truck stop on Interstate 10. But even if vanishingly small, the town seems to be one of the most significant in West Texas. On I-10 East from El Paso, there are many freeway exits that end on dirt roads or no roads at all. I have never been in an area so remote. But even if remote, Van Horn is within easy driving distance of El Paso. This is the kind of freeway where you can open up the throttle on your sports car.
The drive from El Paso to Van Horn is through the Sierra Blanca mountains, which are beautiful in the morning. Overall, the desert brush is noticeably greener in this stretch than in El Paso, New Mexico, or Mojave, but I would hardly describe it as lush.
Beside I-10, there is a major freight railroad artery. Even though it was a Sunday morning, there were double-stacked container trains moving along the route at a good clip.
I exited the freeway and entered town.
The town consists mostly of a single several mile long thoroughfare, along which motels, restaurants, shops and other businesses reside. There are a lot of budget motels in town, but there are also some that are nicer. No Ritz Carlton. There are a few sit-down restaurants.
When I set out from El Paso, I had only a vague idea that the spaceport was somewhere near Van Horn. Serendipity saved me when I first talked to a certain local (details withheld for the sake of all involved). When I mentioned that I was trying to find Corn Ranch, he looked at me bewildered. When I mentioned space, he said "oh, you're looking for Blue Origin? I worked on the construction. Take Route 54 North for 20 miles. It's on your right. There's not much to look at."
We had a gem of a short conversation. He said that recently he talked with the construction foreman and that work was wrapping up around this week. He also mentioned what he thought was a very strange property of the spaceport -- it never rains there. The mountains are laid out such that it rains on all sides of the facility, but never on the facility. A picture below confirms this phenomenon.
Having my directions in hand, I drove out of town on Texas Route 54 North. At first, the signs were not encouraging.
Texas Route 54 is a paved two-lane road that is mostly straight and runs almost all the way to Carlsbad Caverns. The road doesn't appear to have any bridges (rainwater runs over the road), and it looks like it could handle heavy loads. There doesn't appear to be railroad access from Van Horn to the launch site, so Blue Origin will need to truck in all consumables for the last 20 miles. But altogether, it looks like handy ready-to-use heavy infrastructure for a location that is so remote.
Beautiful mountains line the road on both sides.
I had to watch my odometer, because the entrance to the Blue Origin facilities is nondescript and I could have missed it. At first, I doubted that I had the right ranch entrance, but upon looking closely, this entrance set itself apart. It sported a closed gate, a couple of lights, guard facilities, a security video camera, and fresh gravel on the road.
The sign at the entrance tries to scare people off, but I chuckled at the thought of the local prosecutor charging anybody with felony trespassing. Blue Origin will need to see to its security more comprehensively.
The facilities are roughly 6 to 8 miles from the road. Distances are deceptive here -- objects are farther away than they appear. The FAA's environmental assessment states that there is a small ridge in front of the facilities that blocks some of them from sight. It's at times like these that I wish I had a digital SLR and zoom lens. Apologies to those who read this post wanting a tour of the facilities, but my attention wasn't invited.
As you can see from the pictures above and below, there is a patch of green desert brush and then an area of little brush at all. This confirms the helpful local's curious observation that it never rains at the launch site.
This area has huge ranches, and it appears that while people are friendly and helpful, they value the fact that nobody bothers them (rugged individualists). But 5 or 10 thousand showed up for SpaceShipOne's X Prize flight. It seems likely that lots of out-of-towners will want to park along Route 54 in front of the ranch in order to watch the flights. I wonder whether Van Horn is prepared for being so famous.
As stated above, Route 54 has mountains on both sides. The Western mountains facing the Blue Origin facilities (and only about 2 miles from the road) are strikingly beautiful. To be honest, I was skeptical when Bezos said that he bought the ranch in part to share the beauty of the desert with his kids. But I am not a skeptic now. This is amazing scenery.
I wonder how Blue Origin will deal with the noise of rocket launches. Noise travels far in this area, and it would seem that it would reverberate off the mountains lining Route 54. By way of example, I could hear a car coming from a couple of miles away. It's odd to think that even with such a huge footprint, Blue Origin may be bothering its neighbors.
After visiting, the Blue Origin West Texas Commercial Launch Site fascinates me. The site is desert, but is beautiful. It is situated in a very remote area, but is within driving distance to El Paso and has great infrastructure for launch operations. Van Horn is a very small town, but has reasonably good motels and restaurants. Weather is a non-factor at the launch site. Launches can be watched from the road. I left thinking that Jeff Bezos is a very shrewd rocketeer who has had these plans on his mind forever.