- Van Horn is just a dusty blip on a Texas highway. The
struggling town of 3,000 hardy souls stands in the middle of a desert.
It appears memorable only for the relief it offers after driving miles
of empty road.
- But now, in one of the unlikeliest twists in space exploration,
Van Horn is to take its place in history. An eccentric billionaire plans
to build a spaceport here.
- Jeff Bezos, founder of amazon.com, has bought a huge
tract of land just outside Van Horn and declared it will be his base for
a private project to develop commercial spaceflight. If he succeeds, Van
Horn will be home to a fleet of space rockets taking tourists far above
the blue Texas sky into the black of space.
- For residents the first sign something was up when Bezos's
private jet began making regular landings at the town's tiny airfield.
- For Larry Simpson, who is the entire staff and the owner
of Van Horn's newspaper, the Advocate, it was the beginning of a sensational
scoop. He knew Bezos was linked to a mysterious private space project called
Blue Origin. 'I knew something was going on and it probably involved Blue
Origin but I was not sure what,' Simpson said.
- Blue Origin has been the subject of intense speculation.
Many journalists had tried to interview Bezos on the subject but he remained
tight-lipped - until he walked into Simpson's office.
- Bezos spoke to Simpson for 45 minutes, detailing his
plans for Van Horn. Beside him sat Rob Meyerson, Blue Origin's programme
manager and a former worker on the space shuttle. Bezos said he had bought
several hundred thousand acres near Van Horn at the Corn Ranch and would
first build rocket-testing facilities there.
- Eventually, he envisaged flying rockets capable of taking
off and landing vertically, each carrying three passengers into space.
- But Bezos's ambition for Van Horn may not stop at space
tourism for a few wealthy passengers. Blue Origin's mission statement says
it wants to establish 'an enduring human presence in space'. Bezos's chat
with Simpson backed up those sentiments. 'He talked about human colonisation
of space,' Simpson said. 'We could become the centre of space travel.'
- Bezos has the financial clout to realise his dream. He
is listed in Forbes as the 82nd-richest person on earth with a fortune
of at least $5.1 billion.
- He is far from alone in wanting to turn space into a
private industry. His rivals in the new race for the stars are also mainly
from the hi-tech world. Many, too, have links to Texas. Elon Musk, who
invented the online payment system PayPal, has a firm called SpaceX which
aims to launch a military satellite this year from Fort Hood.
- Video games entrepreneur John Carmack, who has made a
fortune from games such as Doom, founded Armadillo Aerospace near Dallas.
Its rocket, dubbed Black Armadillo, is to resume testing this year after
the loss of its prototype last year. Most famously, Paul Allen, co-founder
of Microsoft, backed the SpaceShipOne venture which won the X Prize last
year for the world's first successful private spaceflight. Allen has now
teamed up with Richard Branson to launch Virgin Galactic.
- Now Van Horn is joining the fray and most of its residents
are delighted. 'We are going to have to change our name. We will no longer
be called Van Horn but instead Mos Eisley,' joked artist Randall Horn,
referring to the seedy Star Wars spaceport. 'We'll need to build a hotel
for Venusians and Martians.'
- On Bezos's land, Blue Origin staff, are already preparing
to develop a rocket engine testing facility. The project is beginning to
take off and that is enough to have Van Horn residents dreaming of the
- Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited