Image: Rockledge
Phelan M. Ebenhack  /  AP
An empty restaurant and hotel marquee stand along the side of the road in Rockledge, Fla., southwest of Kennedy Space Center. An uncertain future faces cities in Florida's "Space Coast" as the space shuttle program comes to an end.
By
Special to msnbc.com
updated 7/6/2011 3:07:06 PM ET 2011-07-06T19:07:06

The area around Central Florida's eastern shores calls itself "The Space Coast," but with the shuttle program ending, a more apt moniker might be "Space Ghost."

With the 135th and final shuttle mission poised for launch on Friday, parking lots at NASA's Kennedy Space Center already have room to spare. Some managers are answering their own phones. The shuttle workforce, once 18,000 strong, is down to 5,500 contractors and 1,200 government employees. After Atlantis returns to Earth, another 3,200 contractors will need to find new jobs or, if they have the means, retire.

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By late August, only a skeleton crew of about 1,000 will remain on the program payroll to prepare the three orbiters — Discovery, Endeavour and Atlantis — for display in museums.

The shuttle shutdown will deal the heaviest blow to communities like Titusville, located just west of the spaceport. It won’t be the first time. In the mid-1970s, the United States pulled the plug on NASA’s Apollo moon program, idling about 15,000 workers. That economic tsunami, however, was eased by the knowledge that a new NASA spaceship, the space shuttle, was already in the works.

Today, with few details, fewer contracts and flat budgets for successor spacecraft, Titusville, Merritt Island and Florida’s other space towns are losing their gravitational centers. The planned follow-on program, a revamped moon exploration initiative called Constellation, was axed, starved of funds despite an initial investment of nearly $10 billion.

"When the Constellation program came to a close it was a blow to the Kennedy Space Center team that was working on that," said Bob Cabana, a veteran astronaut who now oversees Kennedy Space Center.

At a recent breakfast meeting in nearby Orlando, Cabana said the space program may appear to be in disarray, but a bright future is taking shape. He points to ongoing renovations of one of the space shuttle’s launch pads. No one knows when it will next be used for flight, or what type of rocket it will host, but there will be no more copper wires and outdated control systems to contend with. It's all fiber optics and digital electronics now, part of NASA’s planned transformation of its Florida spaceport into a multi-use facility, with a focus on research and technology development as well as operations.

"If you’re just an ops center, you’re fat and happy when the program’s bumping along, but when it cycles down you take it in the shorts," said Dale Ketcham, director of the University of Central Florida's Spaceport Research and Technology Institute.

The bust-up is not all bad. Last year, after more than two decades working as an engineer with NASA's prime shuttle contractor, United Space Alliance, Timothy Crannell and his wife Kathleen, formerly a USA attorney, started an engineering and technical services firm.

"Financially, we’re doing fine," said Kathleen Crannell, president of Orion Aerospace. "You have to go out and you have to make it happen for yourself. No one’s going to give you that paycheck, but the opportunities are there."

Image: Donna Thrash
Phelan M. Ebenhack  /  AP
Career progression specialist Donna Thrash talks with space shuttle aerospace workers during a Job Club workshop in Rockledge, Fla.  "Everyone is starting to feel the pinch. People are not working. They're economizing," says Thrash, who runs a jobs workshop at the county's career center. "Every launch, this area is full of people and everyone benefits from that. Once that's gone, it's going to really hit people that that isn't coming anymore."

Access to the NASA talent pool has been a draw for other companies, and a key selling point for Space Florida, the state-backed economic development board that's looking to expand and diversify the state’s aerospace industry. Among its success stories: Brazil-based aircraft manufacturer Embraer, which this year opened its first U.S. assembly facility in Melbourne, Fla., bringing with it about 200 jobs. Half of the new hires are supported by a U.S. Department of Labor grant to retrain laid-off space shuttle workers and place them in new positions. The program pays half a worker’s salary for 90 days, up to $9,600 per person.

Other companies expanding in Florida include California-based SpaceX, owned by Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk. The firm holds NASA contracts to fly cargo to the International Space Station and to develop an escape system so its Dragon capsule can double as a transport craft for crew.

SpaceX’s payroll will never match NASA’s, which is exactly the point. A recent analysis by the University of Colorado’s Center for Science and Technology Policy Research tallies up the shuttle program’s lifetime cost at about $200 billion, or roughly $1.5 billion per flight.

"What we want is a sustainable system, one that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg, that doesn’t inhale the agency’s entire budget just to run the transportation system," Ketcham said.

Irene Klotz is a Florida-based freelance writer who has covered the space program for 24 years.

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Interactive: Final shuttle mission in focus

Photos: End of the Space Shuttle

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  1. Adam Zyglis / Buffalo News, PoliticalCartoons.com
    Above: Slideshow (13) Shuttle era draws to a close
  2. Phil Sandlin / AP
    Slideshow (27) Final countdown for Atlantis
  3. Image:
    Y. Beletsky / ESO
    Slideshow (12) Month in Space: January 2014

Video: It's the final countdown for US shuttle program

  1. Closed captioning of: It's the final countdown for US shuttle program

    >>> this week, marks the beginning of the end of an era. the final countdown for america 's space shuttle program . the shuttle "atlantis" is scheduled to lift off on friday with a crew of four on a resupply mission to the international space station . tonight, nbc's tom costello looks back at three decades of stunning achievement and tragic setbacks.

    >> reporter: ask anyone old enough to remember april 12th , 1981 , and chances are, they do.

    >> the shuttle has cleared the tower.

    >> reporter: columbia rocketed to the space with its crew of two. settle i think we've got something that's really going to mean something to the crew and the world.

    >> reporter: after two days of orbit it landed safely in the california desert. "atlantis's" crew of four is preparing for the final countdown .

    >> we want to make sure that the thousands and thousands of people that put their hands on the space shuttle are honored by this mission and the legacy of the space shuttle .

    >> reporter: for three decades, the shuttle program has brought incredible triumph. the launch of the hubble telescope , john glen 's return to space, the construction of the international space station , and the hubble repair mission. but also, tragedy. the loss of "challenger" and columbia. and lingering questions about whether spending 14 years in low- earth orbit has been worth the financial and scientific investment.

    >> it's been remarkable in what it's been able to accomplish. it's been stunning in what we've been able to learn from it.

    >> reporter: with the launch of the shuttle program , tens of thousands of workers across the country are losing their jobs. many in florida. until commercial rockets are ready, american will rely on the russian space program to carry astronauts into space. but the head of nasa insists america is not giving up its leadership.

    >> some of my best friends died flying on the shuttle. and i'm not about to let human space flight go away on my watch.

    >> reporter: meanwhile, the burden of the final mission falls on commander chris ferguson .

    >> i hope that i paint nasa in the finest light, that we pull off the cleanest mission that is possible. because we want to finish on the strongest note.

    >> reporter: a strong close as america turns the page in space exploration . tom costello, nbc news, washington.

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