Hours before the sun rose on Tuesday morning, a crowd started forming alongside Texas Highway 54, a scenic stretch of road winding between the town of Van Horn and the Guadalupe Mountains. Space enthusiasts congregated outside the gates of Blue Origin’s Launch Site One, where the aerospace company’s billionaire founder, Jeff Bezos, would take part in its first human flight to the edge of space and back—a nationally hyped spectacle, lasting all of ten minutes from start to finish, that had brought hundreds of outsiders to the small West Texas town of two thousand. 

The spectators would have to watch from a distance—Blue Origin had requested that the Texas Department of Transportation close roughly twelve miles of the highway adjacent to the site an hour ahead of the scheduled 8 a.m. takeoff. Troopers with the Texas Highway Patrol pushed traffic behind a barrier about four miles outside the facility, where visitors—some wearing Blue Origin gear—set up their own viewing stations complete with folding chairs; others sat on top of their cars.

Dave Neumeyer of Mesa, Arizona, watched from just behind the barrier on Highway 54. It was his first time seeing a rocket launch in person (a few attempted viewings in Florida and California had been foiled by foggy weather or unforeseen delays). In the weeks leading up to the launch, he had begun scouring Reddit message boards populated by other space enthusiasts, trying to determine his best bet for seeing the rocket from as close as possible. He’d even called the Van Horn Chamber of Commerce and asked about options for public viewing and was given few answers—he said the person he spoke to warned him “not to drive around out there towards the launch area.” (Neumeyer wasn’t alone—Lauren Macias-Cervantes, a TxDOT spokesperson, said “many have inquired about roadside viewing,” and Culberson County sheriff Oscar Carrillo said his office had fielded such calls as well.)

Neumeyer was elated to see the launch, and happy with his spot on the highway. But he hopes future trips might include a designated public viewing spot. “I would really like to see [Blue Origin] put in a public viewing area with basic facilities,” he said after the launch. “I think that would be safer, less stressful by eliminating some unknowns, and be good for the local economy.”

Van Horn mayor Rebecca Brewster happens to agree, though she clarified that Federal Aviation Administration regulations forbade viewers from getting too close. Still, she said, some sort of public viewing would let Van Horn better capitalize on the opportunity for tourism. “What we’d like to see in the future is that Mr. Bezos or TxDOT build a viewing area,” Brewster said. “If they do that, we can capitalize on it a little bit because we can market the fact of the launch and there actually is a space to go.” Blue Origin did not immediately respond to an inquiry about the possibility of a future public viewing space.

blue origin launch van horn
Spectators watch Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket lift off from a spaceport launchpad near Van Horn on July 20, 2021. Jacob Ford/Odessa American via AP

The town has already seen increased traffic in recent years as a result of Bezos operating in its backyard—the hotels and restaurants are “booming,” said Brewster. A new apartment complex plus a smattering of single-family homes have sprung up to accommodate Blue Origin employees, increasing Van Horn’s housing stock. So far, locals seem to view the changes with a degree of optimism, hoping the Blue Origin presence will be a boon to the community. “It’s been a big change for our town,” said Van Horn native and local food vendor Maricela Garcia. “We’ve had a lot of tourism—our town has profited from it. It’s been a good change. It’s putting our town on the map.” In the weeks leading up to the launch, a mural of Jeff Bezos and his rocket ship appeared on the side of a for-sale building in town; a sign declaring “The Sky Is the Limit,” accompanied by the Blue Origin logo, hung outside the Cactus Cantina, a local eatery. 

Many of those tourists were space enthusiasts who arrived in town Monday night or Tuesday morning, though some stayed in neighboring cities like El Paso or Marfa. A large crowd gathered near the Highway 54 barrier. First in the long roadside line of vehicles, a woman wearing an “OCCUPY MARS” T-shirt balanced both a laptop showing a livestream of the launch, which she occasionally consulted for the close-up views, and a portable speaker. She joined the chorus of cheers as the rocket took flight, as the sonic boom rippled through the desert, and again as the astronauts safely made their way back to Earth by parachute. 

“This is incredible,” gushed the woman, an El Paso nurse practitioner named Stephanie Baldwin, who had woken at 3 a.m. to drive to Van Horn. “I’ve waited my whole life to see one of these.” She added that she had named her daughter Kennedy, who didn’t attend the launch, after the Kennedy Space Center. “People always joke about stage moms—I’m the space mom.” 

Baldwin traveled with a colleague from El Paso’s Western Technical College, Mike Hicks, who was visibly overcome with emotion after the flight was completed. The duo were outside the gates of the launch site at 4:30, before being urged to move behind the state-erected barriers. He recalled being four years old and watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon—and now he was experiencing that same childhood feeling on the side of a highway outside tiny, unassuming Van Horn. “This is a pinnacle moment in history,” said Hicks, who saw Bezos’s flight as the dawn of a new era of space exploration. “You watch movies like Star Trek—who’s to say this isn’t the beginning?”