June 16, 2008

‘Space Coast’ in Trouble as Shuttle Era Ends

TITUSVILLE, Fla. - In the shadow of the 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 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, NASA estimates.

It's a radical economic change for the region, but not unprecedented.

In the 1970s, NASA grounded the Apollo program that sent men 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. 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.

"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.

"We're going to have equivalent number of jobs, actually an increase," said Wayne Hale, a NASA manager working on the transition. "All we're talking about is where they're going to be."

And when.

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.