Texas has a long history when it comes to space exploration. After all, the first word uttered on the Moon was “Houston.” However, there’s a new space center in Texas and it’s not anywhere near Houston. 120 miles southeast of El Paso lies Van Horn, a small town of 1,800 people that is home to Blue Origin’s Launch Site One. This is where Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon, will launch himself into space.
The world’s richest man is scheduled to take an 11-minute suborbital flight on July 20. Bezos will be joined by his younger brother Mark, an anonymous bidder who paid $28 million (which rounds out to $,42,424 per second) and an unnamed fourth crewmember. The quarter will travel aboard New Shepard, a rocket which has been widely mocked on the internet for its appearance. The booster will make a rocket-powered soft landing while the manned capsule will descend via parachute into the West Texas desert after travelling through space.
Bezos, who lived in Texas for a time as a child, first started anonymously purchasing land in Van Horn for his rocket launch site back in the 2000s. In fact, it was these land purchases that first revealed the existence of Blue Origin, which has a history of being quite secretive. Blue Origin is similar to SpaceX, another company that specializes in rockets and space flight that was founded by newly-arrived Texan and fellow billionaire Elon Musk.
A spaceport is not the only plan Bezos has for Van Horn. The billionaire also invested $42 million into constructing a giant clock near the West Texas town that will run for 10,000 years.
Over the past several years, the 165,000-acre ranch Bezos owns in Van Horn has hosted several Blue Origin launches. Since the site is focused on suborbital flight, it probably won’t play a role in Bezos’ plans in Earth’s orbit and beyond. For that, Blue Origin has an orbital launch facility in Florida where its larger New Glenn rocket will be manufactured and launched. Still, suborbital flight has some interesting potential when it comes to things like point-to-point transportation. The U.S. military is even looking into using suborbital transports to move troops and cargo around the world extremely quickly.
Bezos has long been fascinated by space. When the science-fiction television series The Expanse was cancelled by SyFy, Bezos personally intervened and got the show picked up by Amazon (if you haven’t seen The Expanse yet, you should). So while his ex-wife gives her billions to charity, Bezos has been pouring a billion dollars a year into Blue Origin. Bezos’ endgame for Blue Origin is space colonization, something he spoke of in his high school valedictorian speech. While rival SpaceX has its sights on Mars, Blue Origin’s ultimate vision is centered around giant space habitats called O’Neill cylinders. Bezos hopes that one day a trillion people will live in millions of these colonies.
While Bezos may have grand plans for the future of humanity, the local government of Van Horn hopes that Blue Origin’s presence will boost tourism. After all, not many towns can offer a view of rocket launches and even fewer can say that those launches include one of the richest people in history hurling themselves into space.
Although the town of Van Horn may be happy with Bezos’ plans, the billionaire has no shortage of detractors. In spite of being the first person in modern history with a net worth over $200 billion, he gives very little of his wealth to charity. Bezos has also paid very little in terms of federal income tax, being subjected to a true tax rate well below what many middle class households pay (Amazon has also gotten away with paying little-to-no taxes). Furthermore, Amazon has repeatedly come under fire for monopolistic power and poor treatment of workers. There’s even a tongue-in-cheek petition to not allow Bezos to return to Earth after he goes to space. At the time of this writing, the petition has nearly 100,000 signatures.
Van Horn is not the only hub for private spaceflight in Texas. SpaceX has also created a launch facility in South Texas, where it tests its new Starship vehicle. However, SpaceX’s actions have been controversial amongst the local residents.
There are not one but two new space races currently ongoing. While the United States engages in a space race against China reminiscent of the one against the Soviet Union, there is a parallel competition between billionaires. The United States and China as well as Blue Origin and SpaceX are rushing to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. Perhaps these resources could be better spent elsewhere, but perhaps humanity really will be taken to new frontiers. Just like the Cold War space race, Texas once again finds itself at the center as various factions compete for a place in the stars.