Blue Origin’s space shots give tiny Texas town a boost

A mural painted on an abandoned building in Van Horn, Texas shows Jeff Bezos and his brother Mark, who will ride the Blue Origin suborbital spacecraft on Tuesday. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

VAN HORN, Texas – The last time I visited this West Texas city in 2006, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin Space Venture planned to offer suborbital space travel for paying passengers by 2010.

The bad news for Van Horn is that it took a decade longer than expected for the Blue Origin space boom to hit the city. But the good news is that the economic impact is arguably ten times as big.

Blue Origin’s 15-year-old environmental assessment, which was the subject of the Federal Aviation Administration hearing I attended in 2006, estimated that there were 20 to 35 full-time employees at the company’s suborbital launch site a half-hour drive north of Van Horn.

Fifteen years later, there are 275 employees – not only because of Blue Origin’s suborbital spaceship New Shepard, which Bezos and three crew members are supposed to sail on Tuesday, but also because of the rocket motor test program that is based on launch site one.

The BE-3 engines used on New Shepard are built at Blue Origin’s headquarters in Kent, Washington, but put through their paces in Texas. Launch Site One is also the test site for Blue Origin’s more powerful BE-4 rocket engines.

New Shepard model with Patricia GoldenPatricia Golden, Director of Van Horn’s Clark Hotel Museum, shows a full-scale model of Blue Origin’s suborbital missile ship New Shepard. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Blue Origin’s workforce in West Texas is a fraction of Blue Origin’s total workforce of more than 3,500 people. Still, 275 relatively high-paying jobs have an impact on the 1,900 residents of Van Horn and, more broadly, Culberson County. “You are one of the major taxpayers in the county – not just the city, but the county,” Van Horn Mayor Becky Brewster told me.

And that was before Blue Origin started flying real passengers.

“This is where history is made,” Brewster said. “We expect a lot more growth in relation to this new chapter in Blue Origin’s relationship with this community.”

Culberson County could use a boost: it tends to rank in the bottom quarter of Texas’ 254 counties for per capita income, and an estimated 19.7% of the population lives in poverty. Over the past few years these numbers have been moving in a positive direction, and it’s hard to argue that Blue Origin’s employment isn’t a factor.

The impact isn’t just being felt in the employment stats: Brewster said Blue Origin has also worked with developers to build more housing units in the Van Horn area. Brewster said that approximately 40% of the company’s employees in West Texas state Van Horn as their place of residence.

Blue Origin employees are known for teaching robotics courses in local schools, and the company helped develop an aerospace engineering curriculum for the University of Texas at El Paso, about 120 miles west.

Ten-year-old Gabriel Williams puts a postcard in a rocket-shaped mailbox that is used for the Club for the Future’s “Postcards to Space” program. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Directly in front of Van Horn’s Clark Hotel Museum, Blue Origin set up a mailbox for postcards to be flown into space as part of a program run by Club for the Future, the company’s non-profit educational foundation. The rocket-shaped box was a magnet for local residents this week.

“I made 20 postcards,” the director of the museum, Patricia Golden, told me. More than a dozen were sold to customers who stopped by during my museum visit.

Golden sells postcards as well as the 36-cent stamps that must be affixed so that the cards can be returned to their senders. “I wanted American flag stamps to show that it was America,” she said, but those stamps are not of the correct face value.

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Not everything about Blue Origin’s presence is appealing. Golden complained that hotel rooms in Van Horn were hard to come by for the Frontier Days and anniversary meeting this week as all outsiders came to the start on Tuesday. “I’m not happy about all this crazy stuff,” she told me. “I moved here because it’s podunk.”

Mayor Brewster is also cautious about the pace of progress. She said she would rather see slow and steady growth than a short-lived business boom – and that fits Bezos’ point of view perfectly. One of the billionaire’s favorite sayings is “slow is slick and slick is fast”. And Blue Origin’s mascot, more than 15 years old, is a slow and steady turtle.

What will Van Horn look like in 15 years? I can’t wait to find out.

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