Shuttle T-shirts
Peter Cosgrove  /  AP
Rian Busse, left, and Brenda Mulberry take Discovery launch T-shirts off a dryer at Space Shirts in Merritt Island, Fla. The region is expected to see up to $6 million in added business related to Wednesday's scheduled space shuttle launch.
updated 7/10/2005 6:15:41 PM ET 2005-07-10T22:15:41

Before the Columbia disaster, a large part of Brenda Mulberry’s business was supplying local shops with T-shirts marking each space shuttle mission.

But the grounding of the shuttle fleet for 2½ years forced Mulberry to look elsewhere for business, and she found a new niche making T-shirts for Rotary clubs around the nation.

“We have had to diversity because I don’t get a check from NASA if the shuttle doesn’t fly,” said Mulberry, whose business is located just outside the Kennedy Space Center.

While she and other local business owners were excited about the prospects that as many as 300,000 visitors could be coming to town this week for Wednesday’s scheduled launch of the shuttle Discovery, many are much less dependent on space tourism than they were three years ago.

In the last several years, space industry-related tourism in Brevard County has gone from as much as 15 percent to less than 5 percent of the Space Coast’s $1 billion tourism industry, said Rob Varley, executive director of the Space Coast Office of Tourism.

Local tourism officials had to change the way they market the area, selling beaches, cruise ships and nature tourism spots instead of focusing on its image as the gateway to space.

The Holiday Inn Express in Cocoa Beach came to rely more on passengers from the cruise ships that dock at Port Canaveral, and also saw business soar last year when homeowners displaced by hurricanes and emergency workers needed a roof over their heads, said Mark Westmore, director of sales.

“If there’s no launches happening here, they’ve got to try to get people coming here some other way,” Mulberry said.

Still, they welcome the return of shuttle launches, since each one brings the local economy $5 million to $6 million.

“It’s a morale booster for the tourism industry to have them back,” Varley said. “It’s going to be huge.”

Mulberry’s business, Space Shirts, expects a 25 percent to 30 percent increase in business this month because of the shuttle launch. The company has about $1 million in annual revenue.

All of the area’s 8,300 rooms, about 1,200 rooms less than usual because of last year’s hurricane damage, are booked for the week, despite the threat of Hurricane Dennis, which made landfall Sunday well to the west.

“This is something where you take the Fourth of July and Christmas and every other holiday and you roll them into one and you have what will happen next Wednesday,” Westmore said. “The Cape is the golden goose.”

The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, the area’s largest manmade tourist attraction with 1.5 million visitors a year, has sold 13,500 tickets ranging in price from $35 to $70 to tourists who want watch the launch from the visitor complex or the nearby Astronaut Hall of Fame.

After several years of pushing the slogan “Orlando’s closest beach,” and dropping images of shuttles from ads after the Columbia disaster, tourism officials are ready to return to the area’s space heritage with a new marketing campaign this fall that uses a man in a space suit as an icon.

“He’ll be at the beach. He will be shopping,” Varley said. “We’re going to use him everywhere.”

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