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Tiny Texas Town Prepares For Jeff Bezos Space Launch

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Van Horn, Texas - population 2,000 - is preparing for its moment in the national spotlight. On Tuesday, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos plans to board a rocket there with his brother and two other passengers for a flight to the edge of space. The rocket was developed by the billionaire's own private space company, Blue Origin. Angela Kocherga of member station KTEP sent us this postcard from West Texas.

ANGELA KOCHERGA, BYLINE: Many people on Interstate 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 the Blue Origin rocket will take off from the launch site and about as close as the public is allowed to watch. Oscar Carrillo is the Culberson County sheriff.

OSCAR CARRILLO: Van Horn, you know, being put on the map, it's exciting for some. And there's going to be some that's going to benefit economically from it.

KOCHERGA: The historic ranching town is about 120 miles east of El Paso. North of here, there's oil and gas, traditional foundations of the Texas economy. But the region is now part of a modern-day private space race.

CARRILLO: I don't think people realize what they were doing out there north of here.

KOCHERGA: Bezos' company has been quietly operating from here since 2000. Blue Origin did not have a sign at the entrance of their launch facility until recently. Even so, Van Horn residents have figured out when there's a test flight, says the sheriff.

CARRILLO: We know something's brewing. And as many launches as they've had, we see the influx of Blue Origin people coming in to support the launch.

KOCHERGA: The spaceport's first launch with humans on board is a high-profile event that included auctioning off a seat on the rocket. Gilda Morales is a Culberson County commissioner and owns the Cactus Cantina and Grill.

GILDA MORALES: Kind of like "Cheers," where everybody knows your name.

KOCHERGA: She says many local residents are forced to leave for big cities to find work.

MORALES: We've been losing population. The young kids graduate, and hardly any of them come back. The old-timers are dying.

KOCHERGA: Morales came back here to take care of her aging parents. Every five years, those who moved away return for the Jubilee, a reunion of graduates from Van Horn High, home of the Eagles. This year, it happens to coincide with the launch.

MORALES: I think we have to pinch ourselves because we see it on TV. Then you walk outside - hey, that's happening here.

KOCHERGA: Morales hopes more young people will be able to build a future in their hometown.

MORALES: If there are good-paying jobs, maybe in - you know, with Blue Origin, why not here? Why leave to bigger towns?

KOCHERGA: According to Blue Origin, the company has 275 employees in West Texas but did not say how many live in Van Horn or what types of jobs they're doing. There are 50 additional contractors on site providing a range of services, from catering to maintenance work. All of the town's hotels have been booked solid for weeks, and restaurants are busy feeding all of the people coming to see Bezos' flight. In a place where people know their neighbors, Morales and others look forward to the opportunity to meet the elusive billionaire.

MORALES: We see him on television. We'd like to get to know him. I'm sure he's a very nice guy, but we don't see much of him. And I guess that goes with the territory of being a billionaire, people hitting him up. You know, we just want to get to know him.

KOCHERGA: For now, she and most residents will have to settle for a glimpse of Bezos' face painted on a mural in town with a rocket blasting off behind him. For NPR News, I'm Angela Kocherga in Van Horn.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.