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West Texas Town Is Hoping for a Higher Orbit

Associated Press Writer

Even skeptical locals, who’ve become wary of city slickers with big ideas for their town, perked up when Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos made his pitch -- a spaceport for commercial travel into space.

Bezos flew into this west Texas town a few weeks ago to tell key leaders how he planned to use his newly acquired 165,000 acres of desolate ranchland. He also gave his only interview so far on the spaceport to the Van Horn Advocate, the weekly newspaper that Larry Simpson runs from the back of his Radio Shack store.

“He walked in and said: ‘Hi, I’m Jeff Bezos,’ and sat down right in that chair there,” Simpson said, pointing to a spot in his small cluttered office.

Over 30 to 40 minutes, Simpson said Bezos told him that the goal of his venture -- known as Blue Origin -- was to send a spaceship into orbit that launches and lands vertically, like a rocket.

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“He told me their first spacecraft is going to carry three people up to the edge of space and back,” Simpson said. “But, ultimately, his thing is space colonization.”

Bezos, 41, was accompanied by Rob Meyerson, Blue Origin’s program manager, who has been manager on the space shuttle emergency return vehicle project and lead aerodynamics engineer developing the shuttle’s parachute landing system.

“NASA has been most helpful, as we have been the recipient of their years of experience,” Bezos told the newspaper.

He said Blue Origin would first build basic structures in Texas, such as an engine test stand, fuel and water tanks, and office building, then begin flight tests in six to seven years, Simpson said.

Blue Origin was incorporated in September 2000 in Washington state, according to the secretary of state’s office. Bezos told Simpson that most of its initial research and development would be done in Seattle, where Bezos and his companies are based. Bezos has said nothing else publicly about his project, and did not grant an interview to the Associated Press.

Blue Origin spokesman Bruce Hicks, based in Houston, said that there was “not much to see or tell” and that the project “won’t go anywhere anytime soon.” He provided a four-paragraph news release and fact sheet, which included Blue Origin’s mission statement -- to “facilitate an enduring human presence in space.”

Bezos, whose company is one of the Internet’s largest retailers, isn’t the only high-tech billionaire with stars in his eyes and ties to Texas. (Bezos attended elementary school for three years in Houston while his stepfather was an engineer at Exxon.)

SpaceX, started by PayPal founder Elon Musk, plans to launch and deploy a military satellite this year using a rocket. The California-based company has conducted much of its testing in McGregor, Texas, near the Ft. Hood military base.

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John Carmack, who made a fortune on “Doom” and “Quake” through his video game company ID Software, owns Armadillo Aerospace in suburban Dallas. The venture also hopes to launch its own brand of space rockets.

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen spent $20 million to fund the SpaceShipOne rocket plane that last fall successfully reached the edge of space and returned. It was dropped from beneath a flying craft and landed like a plane. (The space shuttle, which takes off vertically, also lands like a plane.)

Winning the space race takes talented people, and Blue Origin’s website lists several help-wanted ads for engineers -- “highly qualified and dedicated individuals ... among the most technically gifted in his or her field.”

That’s a tall order for the 3,000 or so residents of Van Horn, many of whom believe that the biggest thing to happen in recent years was construction of a new truck stop on Interstate 10. About 120 miles east of El Paso, it primarily is a rest stop for travelers along I-10, the nation’s southernmost cross-country superhighway. About 50 miles north is Guadalupe Mountains National Park, which has many of the highest mountains in Texas, including 8,085-foot El Capitan. It can be seen from Bezos’ property amid desert and cattle-grazing terrain and salt lakebeds.

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Broadway, Van Horn’s main street, is dotted with long-abandoned businesses, many of them flat-roofed buildings. Two vehicles at the street’s lone stoplight constitute a traffic jam.

Bill Talley, whose Van Horn Pharmacy is the only place to get a prescription filled in a 90-mile radius, said he was surprised by Bezos’ project but was withholding judgment until he knew more. His wife, Mary, was more blunt. “We’re used to it,” she said of “exploiters,” who have raised residents’ hopes and then fled.

More than a decade ago, some businessmen touted a mica mining venture that created a buzz but went nowhere. Fields along I-10 heading east toward Midland and Odessa are littered with rusting oil field equipment, monuments to the oil industry crash of the 1980s.

“We’ve had gentlemen come in here to change the world,” said John Conoly, 76, Culberson County judge for 30 years. “And nothing ever came of it.”

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But Bezos is different, Conoly said.

“After meeting and visiting with him, I have every confidence in the world he will do what he says he will do,” he said. “I know he’s going to have some of the best minds for this project. He doesn’t do things halfway or second-class.”

Bezos also told the Van Horn group that he wanted to give his family the opportunity to enjoy life on a ranch just as he did as a child. Bezos spent summers at his grandfather’s spread in Cotulla in south Texas.

Although Bezos’ spaceship plans were a surprise, his presence in Van Horn wasn’t. His private jet had been seen a number of times in the past year at the local airstrip as he scouted the area and purchased three ranches.

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On Bezos’ new property, the only noticeable changes, residents say, are “No Trespassing” signs posted every mile or so on the rusty barbed-wire cattle fences bordering Texas Highway 54.

Conoly said people aren’t real excited yet, but that could change once construction begins.

For Spanish-speaking residents like Manuel Baeaza, 47, who works at a marble mine in the mountains that adjoin Bezos’ property, the project brings promise. “More jobs, it would be a blessing,” said Baeaza, who has lived in the area for 14 years.

Ricky Hutson, who works and lives at a used bookstore and resale shop, was more philosophical: “This is going to force this town to change for the better. If you’ve lived a hard life, this is a place you can live in peace. But if you’re used to the high-tech lifestyle, you might not want to come here.

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“Maybe we’ll actually get some business. As you can tell, this town is pretty behind the times.”


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