Billionaire Jeff Bezos’ flight to the edge of space with his brother and two other passengers has put the tiny West Texas town of Van Horn in the national spotlight. Van Horn, population about 2,000, is the closest town to the launch site.
“Van Horn being put on the map, it’s exciting for some and there’s some that are going to benefit economically from it,” said Culberson County Sheriff Oscar Carillo.
Most people on I-10 drive past Van Horn on the way to somewhere else. But a crowd is expected in town for Tuesday’s launch. Van Horn is about 20 miles from where Bezos’ company Blue Origin operates a launch site in a remote area of West Texas.
The facility is closed to the public, and as close as people will be allowed to get, since Blue Origin asked TxDOT to close highway 54, nearby.
Bezos’ company has been quietly operating here since the year 2000 and only recently put up a gleaming sign at the entrance of the launch site, ahead of the first flight with people on board.
“I don’t think people realized what they were doing out there, north of here,” Carillo said.
Van Horn is a historic ranching town, about 120 miles east of El Paso. North, there’s oil and gas, the traditional foundations of the Texas economy. But the region is now part of a modern-day private space race.
Over the years, Van Horn residents have figured out when there’s a test flight.
“We know something’s brewing as many launches as they’ve had. We see the influx of blue origin people coming in to support the launch,” Carillo said.
Some townspeople catch sight of a flight in the blue skies over the desert now and then. Amy Morales has seen a few launches from the roof of the historic El Capitan Hotel where she’s the assistant manager.
But a few days before the human flight, she was more excited about another event, the Jubilee, a reunion of graduates from Van Horn High School, home of the Eagles.
“A lot of people do come back. We have a good time. It gets pretty crazy,” Morales said.
The reunion includes an ice cream social, a big dance and a chance to catch up with old friends who’ve moved away. Like many struggling rural towns, young people leave for jobs in big cities.
“We’ve been losing population. The young kids graduate and hardly any of them come back. The old timers are dying,” said Culberson County commissioner Gilda Morales.
Morales moved back to take care of her aging parents. The county commissioner is also a nurse practitioner at the local clinic, editor of local paper and owns the Cactus Cantina and grill. The place is popular with locals “kind of like Cheers, where everybody knows your name,” she said.
The cantina’s small staff all have day jobs so it’s only open in the evenings, Thursday through Saturday and the occasional Sunday. But there are extended hours leading up the Blue Origin launch. She and other business owners expect an economic boost from the high profile flight that included auctioning off a seat on the rocket.
“I think we have to pinch ourselves because you see it on TV and then you walk outside and hey that’s happening here,” Morales said.
While grateful for the extra customers, she hopes the benefit goes beyond space tourism so more young people can build a future in their hometown.
“If there are good paying jobs, maybe with Blue Origin, why not here? Why leave for bigger towns?”
Blue Origin has 275 employees in West Texas but the company did not specify how many live in Van Horn. The company has 50 additional contractors on site, providing support services. They include catering, cleaning and maintenance services according to Morales.
Blue Origin employees also mentor the robotics team and it helped add a college curriculum course to the schools, according to the company.
In place where people know their neighbors, Morales and others look forward to the opportunity to meet the elusive Bezos someday.
“I’m sure he’s a very nice guy but we don’t see much of him. I guess that goes with territory of being a billionaire, people hitting him up. We just want to get to know him,” Morales said.
For now, she and most local residents will have to settle for glimpse of Bezos’ face, painted on a mural in town with a rocket blasting off behind him.
“And that’s too bad because I think he would like us,” Morales said.