Florida's 'Space Coast' Looks Beyond the Shuttle

Space shuttle Atlantis lifts off, Feb. 7, 2008. i i

Space shuttle Atlantis lifts off, Feb. 7, 2008, at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Bruce Weaver/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Bruce Weaver/AFP/Getty Images
Space shuttle Atlantis lifts off, Feb. 7, 2008.

Space shuttle Atlantis lifts off, Feb. 7, 2008, at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Bruce Weaver/AFP/Getty Images

The space shuttle Endeavour is scheduled to land Wednesday evening, weather permitting, at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. After Endeavour returns, there will be just 11 missions left to complete before the end of the space shuttle program in 2010.

Along Florida's "Space Coast," people are worrying about what the end of the shuttle program will mean for workers and the region's economy.

In the area near Cape Canaveral along Florida's Atlantic Coast, there's a sense a deja vu in the air. For many who live and work here, the looming end of the space shuttle brings back memories of the 1970s.

"In the middle of all that euphoria of man stepping out to the stars for the first time ever, all of a sudden there were a lot of people without jobs," says Al Koller. He was working at NASA when, quite abruptly, word came down that the Apollo program was being cancelled.

Within just a few years, the workforce at the Kennedy Space Center was cut from 25,000 employees to less than half that.

The ripple effects from those layoffs, Koller recalls, devastated Florida communities from Titusville to Melbourne.

"Some sold shoes," he says. "Some tried to do real estate. Before it was over, you could pick up houses for no money down, almost anywhere — any kind of house."

Thirty-three years after the last Apollo flight, the area north and south of Cape Canaveral — now dubbed Florida's "Space Coast" — has changed dramatically. Today, there are more people here and a much more diverse economy.

Even so, there are about 7,500 workers at the Kennedy Space Center whose jobs will be eliminated once the shuttle program wraps up.

Many of those people — mostly employees of outside contractors — may eventually find work on Constellation, NASA's next manned space-flight program.

But there will be a gap. Constellation won't really get started until 2015, five years after the shuttle program ends.

Officials in Brevard County, home to the Kennedy Space Center, project that ultimately, the net loss to the Space Coast won't be more that 3,500 jobs. But some think it could be higher. Congress has asked NASA to come up with its own estimate.

Mike Wetmore, an associate director at the Kennedy Space Center, says that after 2010, workers still will be needed to close out shuttle operations.

"So I would expect some percentage of the contractors will move from shuttle to Constellation," he says. "Some of them will move into the retirement phase of their contract. And I know we have quite a few folks who are staying around to fly the program out. And then there will be some that unfortunately are left without jobs."

One thing is clear: Constellation and other future NASA programs at Cape Canaveral will require far fewer people than those needed for the space shuttle.

One reason is because the shuttle is reusable, and maintaining and processing it requires a lot of workers. The next-generation Constellation project relies on one-use-only rockets and capsules.

For nearly 50 years, launch and operations are what the Kennedy Space Center has been known for. But even there it now has competition — both internationally and in the United States, where some private space companies say they may go elsewhere for their launches.

Lynda Weatherman, of the area's economic development commission, says it's important that Florida's Space Coast diversify its aerospace industry and the role it plays in the nation's space program.

"We don't want to rely on launch. We can't afford to rely on launch," she says.

And she notes that the state of Florida helped Lockheed Martin Corp. win a contract to do final assembly of the Constellation's crew-exploration vehicle at Cape Canaveral.

But even that demonstrates the changes afoot in the aerospace industry and along Florida's Space Coast. As several thousand shuttle jobs fade away, that new contract will put just 400 people to work.

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