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It's been five years since NASA retired the space shuttle that ended a federal program that employed about 10,000 people around Cape Canaveral. Those job losses were a blow to an area that so closely identified with NASA that it's known as the Space Coast. NPR's Greg Allen reports the region's economy is bouncing back and attracting companies competing in a new space race.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: There's something new happening along this section of the Atlantic Coast in Central Florida just east of Orlando. The Space Coast isn't just launching rockets and satellites. Now it's building them. And it might be more accurate to call it the Aerospace Coast. In 2009, the Brazilian jet-maker Embraer gave this region a boost when it broke ground on its plant in Melbourne, Fla.
PHIL KRULL: This is about as noisy as you're going to hear out here so...
ALLEN: In the production area, at least a dozen small jets are in various stages of assembly. Plant director Phil Krull says all the plants used here are shipped from Embraer's home facility in Brazil. Embraer employs about 600 people here and is expanding. Its bread and butter is the Phenom 300, Krull says, the best-selling business jet in the world.
KRULL: I could tell you, you know, it's a workhorse. It's a little bit more heavy duty. You know, the skins are thicker than our competitors, but it's just a great design.
ALLEN: And it comes with a price tag of about $10 million each. Embraer was lured here by generous incentives and a talented workforce. The company hired engineers and technicians who used to work on the defunct shuttle program. Lynda Weatherman heads the region's Economic Development Commission and says when that program ended, several thousand people found themselves out of work just as the recession began.
LYNDA WEATHERMAN: But certainly having both at the same time, I don't think you could probably pick a more severe circumstance. I mean, we had a unemployment rate that was near 12 percent, and that's a lot.
ALLEN: Since then, the Space Coast has attracted companies that don't just launch from here, but also do research, development and manufacturing. Lockheed Martin and Boeing started that trend when they won contracts to build the next generation of NASA spacecraft. Weatherman says those contracts sent an important message to people and companies on the Space Coast.
WEATHERMAN: There was a second act for space.
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JEFF BEZOS: We're not just launching from here. We're building here.
ALLEN: Billionaire Jeff Bezos gave the region a lift last fall when he announced he was bringing his Blue Origin company to the Space Coast, along with a $200 million plant and more than 300 jobs. We'll be part of a complex for commercial space companies just outside the gates of Kennedy Space Center.
Another space startup, OneWeb satellite, recently announced its coming, too, building an $85 million manufacturing plant. Founder Greg Wyler says his company will build at least 900 small satellites to provide high-speed Internet service around the globe.
GREG WYLER: We're building satellites not like artisanal pieces, but we're building them more like medical or aviation products.
ALLEN: Add these jobs to others at companies like Northrop Grumman which recently won the Air Force contract for the next generation's stealth bomber, and it appears the Space Coast has recovered most of the jobs lost at the end of the shuttle program.
Dale Ketcham is with Space Florida, a state agency focused on attracting aerospace ventures. After years of depending on government contracts, he says, the region is now just beginning to tap the commercial space industry's potential.
DALE KETCHAM: In the next 10 years, NASA managed launches. They really are only planning on two. But over the next 10 years, you're probably going to see a couple hundred commercial launches, so that's the growth opportunity.
ALLEN: Ketcham says some of the startups hope eventually to get a big financial return from mining asteroids. With SpaceX and other companies now sending up rockets from Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral last year had 17 launches, its busiest year since 2003. Greg Allen, NPR News.