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Blue Origin brings space tourism to tiny Texas town

Blue Origin brings space tourism to tiny Texas town

VAN HORN, Texas — For years, the official letterhead for the small town of Van Horn, tucked neatly among the foothills of the Guadalupe Mountains, read simply: “Farming, ranching, mining.”And while there is still some farming and ranching in this far West Texas community, and a talc mine still operates near the edge of town, there’s another booming business in its midst: space tourism.The sprawling spaceport of Blue Origin, the company founded by business magnate Jeff Bezos in 2000, is located about 25 miles outside of the town of about 1,800 residents on what was once desolate desert ranchland. On Tuesday, the company plans to launch four people on a 10-minute trip into space, including Bezos, his brother, Mark, female aviation pioneer Wally Funk, and Oliver Daemen, an 18-year-old Dutchman and last-minute fill-in for the winner of a $28 million charity auction who had a scheduling conflict. Funk, at age 82, and Daemen will become the oldest and youngest people in space.“That’s the big buzz in this little town,” said Valentina Muro as she rang up a customer at the Broadway Café along Van Horn’s main strip. “It’s kind of put Van Horn on the map a little more than it was.”The town, which sprouted up in the late 1800s during the construction of the Texas and Pacific Railway, now is mostly an overnight stop for travelers along Interstate 10, which runs parallel to the town’s main road, dotted with hotels, restaurants, truck stops and convenience stores.“Our biggest driving force is the tourism dollar,” said Van Horn Mayor Becky Brewster.The town’s proximity to Big Bend National Park, the Guadalupe Mountains, an ancient barrier reef that includes the four highest peaks in Texas, and New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns also makes it an ideal pit stop for tourists.“We often plug ourselves as the crossroads of the Texas Mountain Trail,” Brewster said. “We’re right here in the center and this can be your hub for all your adventures in far West Texas.”As for the impact that Blue Origin’s operations have had on the town, the reaction among locals is mixed. While employees and contractors have been working at the facility since about 2005, Brewster said it’s just been in the last five years or so that workers for Blue Origin have started integrating themselves into the community.“When they were in the development stages, Blue Origin was so secretive about what was going on, their people couldn’t really socialize because they couldn’t talk about their work and things like that,” Brewster said. “And it was like, here are the Blue Origin people and here are the Van Horn people. But that’s starting to change for the better.”One of the roadblocks to connecting locals and the scientists and engineers who work at Blue Origin is one that plagues many rural American communities — a lack of available housing. A local developer constructed about a dozen two-bedroom homes and a small apartment complex, and all of those were quickly rented out for Blue Origin employees. Of the roughly 250 employees and contractors that work at the facility, Brewster said only about 40% live in Van Horn.Krissy Lerdal, whose husband is an engineer for the company, said he lived in a local hotel for more than four years before finally relocating his family to Van Horn from New Mexico.“When we looked to buy here, there were five houses on the market, none of which passed inspection, and so we had to bring in a modular home,” Lerdal said. “It’s not my dream home, but housing is lacking.”Still, in the three-and-a-half years that she has lived here, Lerdal said she has worked hard to integrate herself into the community. Her children attend the local school system, and she joined the Women’s Service League, which raises money for scholarships. She also has a seat on the city’s zoning board.“I know the people who are living here and bought homes here have been trying hard to be involved,” she said. “It’s hard when most of the community is all related. We’re the outsiders and we don’t want to step on toes, but we want to be involved, and it’s a hard line to walk.“I’m glad that I feel like I’m part of the community, but some people don’t feel that way.”Linda McDonald, a longtime Van Horn resident and the district clerk for the seat of Culberson County, said that while she’s amazed at the prospect of people being launched into space from practically her back yard, she bristles at the suggestion that Blue Origin put Van Horn on the map.“We are already on the map,” she told a group of about 100 graduates of Van Horn High School during a recent pep rally and reunion that was part of the town’s annual jubilee. “You have helped put us on the map, and we should be proud of that.”———Follow Sean Murphy at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy

Oklahoma board approves rules banning certain race theories

Oklahoma board approves rules banning certain race theories

Public school teachers in Oklahoma could have their teaching licenses suspended for teaching certain concepts about racism under new rules approved by the State Board of EducationBy SEAN MURPHY Associated PressJuly 12, 2021, 6:25 PM• 2 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleOKLAHOMA CITY — Public school teachers in Oklahoma could have their teaching licenses suspended for teaching certain concepts about race and racism under new rules approved Monday by the State Board of Education.With just one opposing vote, the board approved emergency rules to comply with a bill approved by the Republican-led Legislature this year that purports to ban so-called “critical race theory.” The new law prohibits public school teachers of grades K-12 from teaching eight different concepts about race, including that an individual, by virtue of his or race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously. It also prohibits teaching that any individual should feel discomfort or guilt on account of his or her race or sex.The Republican authors of the bill said it targeted critical race theory, which is a way of thinking about America’s history through the lens of racism, although there is no mention in the bill of critical race theory, which is not typically taught in K-12 schools.Democrats in the Legislature who opposed the bill argued it was a waste of time and addressed a non-existent problem.Carlisha Bradley, the only Black member of the board, voted against adopting the rules, saying she believes the new law and the rules are doing a disservice to students and teachers.“With these rules, we are robbing students of having a high-quality education,” she said.Several current and former teachers addressed the board and said they support the new rules.The new rules authorize parents of students to inspect curriculum, instructional materials, class assignments and lesson plans to ensure compliance and set up a method for individuals to file complaints. Public schools are required to investigate complaints, and a teacher’s license can be suspended if they are found to have violated any provision of the rule.

Oklahoma prison inmates to begin receiving computer tablets

Oklahoma prison inmates to begin receiving computer tablets

OKLAHOMA CITY — Inmates at an Oklahoma prison began receiving special computer tablets this week, as part of a Department of Corrections plan to provide secure tablets to everyone incarcerated in state prisons.The devices, specially designed by prisons communications company Securus Technologies, will include free content such as prison policies, access to a law library, some books and educational and self-help materials. Inmates can also pay to receive music, movies, games and television programs, as well as to send and receive messages, including video messages, to and from their families. The tablets do not have unrestricted access to the internet.Usually, inmates wanting to receive educational or vocational training must be escorted to a classroom or program location. But inmates can now receive those services directly on the tablet, said Mike Carpenter, chief of technical services and operations at the Corrections Department.“The education and programming, that’s huge for us,” Carpenter said.On Tuesday, North Fork Correctional Center inmate Byron Robinson, who has been incarcerated since 2005 — the same year YouTube was founded — said the tablet was totally new to him.“I’ve never even touched one of these things until today,” Robinson said. “It’s mindboggling, really, how much this thing can do.”Similar programs allowing inmates to access secure tablets have been rolled out in other states, including Arizona, Connecticut and Utah, but Oklahoma is one of the first in the nation to combine the company’s latest tablet and operating system.In Pinal County, Arizona, officials started distributing tablets to inmates at the state’s third-largest jail in 2019, said Matt Hedrick, deputy chief of the detention center.“It has been phenomenal,” Hedrick said.Besides helping to keep inmates pacified, Hedrick said the jail scans incoming letters and photographs to an inmate’s tablet, reducing the chance for contraband to come into the facility and allowing inmates to have access to more personal photographs.“Before you had rules on how many photos they could have in their cell, how many magazines,” he said. “Now that doesn’t happen. They can have as many as they want.”There are some drawbacks to providing inmates with tablets. According to a 2019 report from the Prison Policy Initiative, the “free” tablets frequently charge users above-market prices for services. Oklahoma’s contract with the company allows a 25-cent charge for emails and 75 cents for outbound video messages. Music can cost up to $1.99 per song or $14.99 per album, while the cost for one television episode can range from $1.70 to $2.28.Some 21,000 inmates are currently incarcerated by the state, making the plan potentially very lucrative for Securus.The Department of Corrections also benefits financially from the arrangement, receiving $3.5 million annually from the communications company for the first five years of the contract, and $3.75 million for the next five years.“Our recent analysis of these contracts suggests that they actually put the interests of incarcerated people last, prioritizing cost savings and the provider’s bottom line,” the report said.Sierra Kiplinger, who was released from prison in April, said that while inmates are excited about the new technology, she expressed concern about how much inmates have to pay to utilize the services.“ The phone calls for Securus are ridiculously high, and so I’m assuming if the phone calls are high, this is going to be even higher,” she said.State Rep. Justin Humphrey, chairman of the House Criminal Justice and Corrections Committee, said that while he supports the program, he believes public perception could be a problem.“I don’t think the public is going to like it when they see we’re giving all these inmates tablets and they say, ‘My kid can’t get a tablet at school,’ Humphrey said.