In the shadow of Kennedy Space Center, the countdown has begun in the towns that run on the space program’s clock.
NASA is retiring its shuttle fleet in two years, and for at least five years after that, no humans will launch from Florida’s “Space Coast.”
Communities built up around Cape Canaveral figure to take a hobbling hit. There will be no more blastoffs by Atlantis, Discovery or Endeavour to pack hotels and viewing sites with tourists. Up to 6,400 of the 8,000 shuttle contractors in the area will lose their jobs, according to early NASA estimates.
It’s a radical economic change for the region, but not unprecedented.
In the 1970s, NASA grounded the Apollo program that sent humans to the moon, and jobless rates soared. When the first Apollo flights launched in 1968, 26,000 worked at Kennedy; that was down to 16,000 by the mid-1970s when the program ended, according to NASA.
“People who work at the space center always have an idea that a program is coming to an end or there are so many years left,” said Kevin Smith, president of the local Transport Workers Union, which represents shuttle employees ranging from janitors to satellite technicians. “But rarely do we ever get to that point. Now we know for sure that we are coming to the end of a program and we’re going to have to do something.”
It won’t be as bad as the post-Apollo years, when the space center employed 40 percent of Brevard County’s work force. Homes were said to be available simply by taking over the payments, and once-proud scientists subsisted on unemployment benefits or menial labor.
The area economy is more diversified now, with high-tech employers nearby such as Northrop Grumman Corp. And this time, NASA and local officials are planning for the change.
But it will be another dramatic shift for communities that saw their first motels, large apartments and shopping centers built in the space boom. Roads are named after pioneers like John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth, and children attend schools called Apollo Elementary, Astronaut High and Challenger 7.
What will happen? It’s ‘up in the air’
“It’s kind of up in the air with what’s going to happen,” said Dayna Watson, a 35-year-old waitress at Shuttles in Merritt Island, a simple stucco bar full of autographed shuttle crew photos and other NASA paraphernalia. It is the closest watering hole for space center employees and a popular spot for tourists to watch launches.
“It’s going to be a big transition, and there’s a lot of people that don’t know if their jobs are secure or not,” Watson said.
Other regions will be hurt, though not as severely.
NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, where the shuttle’s external fuel tanks are produced, could lose up to 1,300 of its 1,900 jobs, according to NASA. Johnson Space Center in Houston could lose up to 2,400 of its 5,900 civilian jobs.
Some could benefit. The Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., where a guidance system for next-generation rockets will be developed, could gain 400 to 2,800 jobs.
NASA urges everyone to view its own numbers skeptically because they don’t account for new contract work for the agency’s next plan for human space flight. The Constellation Program will use rockets to launch a new vehicle — called Orion — to the international space station, the moon and elsewhere.
“We’re going to have equivalent number of jobs, actually an increase,” said Wayne Hale, a NASA manager working on transition issues. “All we’re talking about is where they’re going to be.”
Five years of hard times?
There is a five-year gap between the shuttle’s retirement in 2010 and the first manned Constellation flight planned in 2015. That has encouraged some in Congress, particularly those who represent NASA’s space centers, to propose huge funding infusions to keep the shuttle flying.
Hale said that’s impossible; any extension of the shuttle’s life would only delay Orion’s launch.
“It is a nice thought,” Hale said. “The fact of the matter is it’s too late. The talk of throwing a bone NASA’s way, the numbers that I’ve heard are not even close to what it would take to continue to fly the shuttle out past the 2010 deadline.”
Hoping to keep well-paid workers from losing their jobs or moving, officials are offering advanced job training and trying to land new contracts from NASA or other high-tech companies.
New Orleans is courting shipmakers that could employ the seamless-melding technology used to make the shuttle’s tanks. Florida’s Brevard County has already landed assembly work for the Orion capsule and is courting space tourism companies that could launch from Kennedy.
“When companies go to relocate, one of the first questions out of their mouth is the availability of an effective labor force. All the beautiful brochures in the world can’t produce that,” said Lynda Weatherman, head of the local economic development commission.
But high-tech work probably won’t help tourism. Brenda Mulberry, a 49-year-old who in 1984 started a Merritt Island memorabilia and printing shop called Space Shirts, said she’s nervous. Her sales jump 300 to 400 percent on launch days and wither without them, she said.
Moreover, her husband is a shuttle engineer and many of his colleagues have left or plan to, she said. They and other NASA and contract employees declined to be interviewed because they weren’t authorized to talk with the news media.
There is still hope for a smaller tourist trade based on people around the world fascinated with the space program and its history at the Cape.
But businesses aren’t counting on it.
Shanna Rhodes, director of sales and marketing at the Clarion Hotel in Titusville, a town that boasts the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame, said they were trying to attract new customers, like people who take cruises out of nearby Port Canaveral.
“We are hoping that possibly there’ll be another attraction coming for tourism,” Rhodes said. “It’s definitely going to hurt. I don’t think anybody can say it’s not.”