Post-shuttle, Space Coast seeks new identity

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Lilly Rockwell of the News Service of Florida reports: Four weeks ago, hundreds of thousands of visitors squeezed on to Titusville’s grassy medians and asphalt parking lots for the very last of three decades of ear-splitting, ground-shaking space shuttle launches.

Now, signs of the departure of NASA’s longest-running space program are plain to see — from the forlorn “Thanks Shuttle Workers” posters in business windows to the outdated tours at Kennedy Space Center, where visitors are still besieged with reminders of the now Earth-bound shuttle.
Florida’s self-titled “Space Coast” is suffering an identity crisis.

As the home of Kennedy Space Center and the launch site for 135 space shuttle excursions over 30 years, Brevard County has long and enthusiastically embraced its status as one of the epicenters of the space industry.
But now that the space shuttle program has ended, the area is struggling to define itself. Kennedy Space Center and NASA are still around, but thousands of space shuttle workers are laid off.

More than the economic sting of a layoff, many community leaders say the closing of the space shuttle program has forced a painful re-examination of what types of jobs, businesses, and tourism opportunities await the Space Coast.

“We can no longer continue to define our space program by what NASA does,” said Frank DiBello, the head of Space Florida, the state’s economic development arm for the space industry. “It’s a mistake and a mistake we’ve made twice.”

CHANGING MISSIONS

The first time Brevard County suffered from a change in NASA’s space mission was in 1975.

When the popular Apollo moon-landing program ended, about 16,000 workers that helped launch the Saturn rockets were laid off in Brevard County. NASA had shifted its priorities from exploring the moon to a shuttle program that focused on near-Earth exploration and the yet-to-be-built International Space Station.

“When the Apollo program ended, there was no safety net at all,” said Roger Handberg, an expert in space policy at the University of Central Florida. Handberg said out-of-work engineers stayed in the Titusville area with the hope of gaining jobs in the shuttle program. “We had astrophysicists running gas stations,” Handberg said.

That crisis eased when the first space shuttle was launched from Florida in1981. Matt Chesnut, the economic development director for Titusville, describes the clunky, bigger shuttle as similar to a moving van.

“The space shuttle was big, almost like a U-Haul truck that got stuff up into space and unloaded cargo,” Chesnut said.

But after the Columbia space shuttle disaster in 2003, when seven astronauts were killed after the shuttle disintegrated over Texas, NASA re-examined its priorities and decided the shuttle program had to end.

In 2004, then-President George W. Bush said NASA would focus instead on exploring long-term survival on the moon and, later, Mars. This new focus meant the labor-intensive shuttle program had to be dismantled. Even with the new focus and the prospect for a new space vehicle, Handberg said, Florida stood to lose jobs.

But in April 2010, President Barack Obama ended the idea of the “Constellation” program, which would have sent astronauts back to the moon, making the mission of NASA and the future of the laid off space workers murky.

Instead, NASA would outsource space flight to other countries and focus on research, with a vague, longer-term goal of beginning manned space flights again with a new space vehicle.

“The reality is, there was not sufficient interest nationally to build a new space program,” Handberg said.

SPACE WORKERS WONDER WHAT’S NEXT

The over 7,300 space shuttle workers who have been laid off since 2008 are left wondering what the future holds.

Though the area has become popular as a launch site for private space exploration and unmanned NASA rockets, there simply aren’t enough jobs to fill the vacuum created by the space shuttle program ending.

So locals worry about a shuttle worker brain drain in a county that has already been hit hard by the recession.

“They are leaving,” said Sen. Thad Altman, R-Viera. “I have personal friends that are now working in aerospace in other states. It is a big concern.”

These workers feel psychologically wounded, having dedicated their careers to the exciting mission of space exploration. Their job wasn’t just a job – it was fulfilling America’s destiny.

Now, many are disheartened by the prospect of changing to a less inspiring career.

Outside the Brevard Workforce office in downtown Titusville, Harriett Robertson carries a thick white binder with her to a meeting designed to teach former shuttle workers new skills.

Robertson was laid off by United Space Alliance, the main private contractor for the shuttle program, on July 22. That was the day after the shuttle Atlantis glided to its final stop at Kennedy Space Center.

She designed electrical cables for the launch complex, and is feeling daunted by the prospect of competing against thousands of other engineers for the few available space-related jobs in Brevard County.

“I’m thinking of going to get some training in medical billing or something in the medical field,” said a resigned Robertson. “It’s going to be a long time before the space program comes back.”

More than anything, Robertson said she is “disappointed” the federal government changed course on space policy.”We were the King of Space. Now we are turning it over to the Russians. We are just giving it away.”

‘DOABLE’ COMMUTES

Brevard Workforce is tasked with helping laid off shuttle workers find jobs. Judy Blanchard, the director of industry relations for Brevard Workforce, said many shuttle workers were highly specialized and need training to transition into careers in other technology fields, such as biotechnology or alternative energy.

“Trying to place 8,000 workers in Brevard County is certainly a challenge for us,” Blanchard said, noting the unemployment rate in Brevard for June was 11.3 percent, higher than the state average.

Blanchard said beyond filling local jobs, they are trying to find positions for these workers outside of Brevard County, in nearby Volusia and Indian River counties. “Those are very doable commutes,” Blanchard said.

The county has also secured a $15 million federal grant to help train aerospace workers for other industries, which so far 60 companies have taken advantage of to hire 154 people.

But the biggest challenge may be healing the psychological blow of a major career change.

“They are grieving and what they really want is their old job back and to work in human space flight because it’s in their soul,” Blanchard said. Brevard Workforce modeled its transition program for space workers after the military’s attempts to transition deployed military personnel back to civilian life.

“When you think about the stress and anxiety of ‘How am I going to pay my bills?’ it’s more than that,” Blanchard said. “It’s adjusting to the change of everything you’ve ever known, realizing that how you identify your worth and who you are by having a business card, all of that is going away.”

SPACE COAST CLINGS TO TOURISM

Though the layoffs pack an economic punch, it’s the loss of tourists that some business owners are fretting over.

Space shuttle launches brought between 100,000 to 200,000 people into the county, with more than a million visitors for the last shuttle launch of Atlantis on July 8.

Brevard County has a $2.8 billion tourism industry, and a good chunk of that comes from space program, either from launches, visits to Kennedy Space Center, or business travel related to the industry.

Many people incorrectly believe that the space shuttle program’s end means the end of NASA, Chesnut said.

“Our biggest challenge is telling people the space center is not dead,” Chesnut said. “This town isn’t dying over here.”

DiBello, the head of Space Florida, said rocket launches done by private companies and NASA will still draw tourists. “We are continuing to try to increase diversity and the number of launches occurring,” DiBello said.

At Kennedy Space Center on Tuesday, tourists still arrived by the dozens. The tourist center still emphasizes the shuttle program, with a body-rattling flight simulator and exhibits devoted to understanding the shuttle.

Guided tours still take visitors to see the now-defunct shuttle launch pads and the empty shuttle assembly building.

A tour guide assured visitors that the gap between space programs is a mere “dry spell.”

Chesnut said they are trying to stave off a drop in tourism by promoting the area’s eco-tourism. Thanks to the presence of NASA, thousands of acres between the Indian River and Atlantic Ocean remain undeveloped.

“We are smack dab in the middle of two of the most beautiful nature preserves in the United States,” Chesnut said. Kennedy Space Center tour guides specifically point out manatee playgrounds, an eagle’s nest and alligators.

“It is beautiful,” Chesnut said. “People can boat, they can kayak, they can bicycle.”

REINVENTING THE SPACE COAST

DiBello said the recipe for the Space Coast’s future success includes broadening what the area is known for.

“The state’s strategy for the growth of this industry lies in diversification of the industry,” DiBello said. “The space marketplace is so much broader than just NASA.”

But one challenge for Florida is it has always been known as a launch site, not a place where space vehicles or airplanes are actually conceived of or developed. Handberg called Kennedy Space Center a “truck stop.”

Florida missed the boat early on to lure non-launch space jobs, and now is playing catch-up, Handberg said.

“(Florida) tended to think about building houses and condos,” he said. “Space was considered a regional issue in Florida. I don’t think most people thought about the economic flow.”

Altman denies this charge, saying the Legislature was aggressive in offering incentive packages.

The Legislature did pass a space tax incentive program this year which gives private companies or government contractors involved in space flight a tax break if they bring 35 new jobs and invest at least $15 million over a three-year period.

Between this package and research and development tax credits, the Legislature made $17.1 million in tax incentives available.

Supporters of Florida’s space industry say it’s a nice start, but more should be done.

Chesnut said Florida is falling far behind other states in tax credits for renewable energy companies. He and others see renewable energy companies as a good transition industry for shuttle workers.

“We have to create our own destiny with our incentives,” Chesnut said.

The Space Coast finds itself scrambling to lure companies at a time when companies struggle to access cash.

Many incentive programs only reward companies after they move to Florida and create jobs.

“In today’s economy, it is difficult to turn to private capital for bank financing to set up operations,” DiBello said.

There have also been several recruiting victories.

Space X is one success story. The California-based company that will send its Falcon 9 rockets to the International Space Station employs 60 people in Florida with an annual payroll of $5 million.

Space X said it expects to double that workforce in the next few years.

“There is no one business in the area that will take up 7,000 jobs at one time,” DiBello said. “We have to replace that volume of work with small bits of two and three hundred at a time.”

Altman places blame squarely on the federal government for ending the shuttle program without clear guidance on what is next. “For the first time in our history, we have seen an actual program just canceled, dropped,” Altman said. “The federal government needs to come to the table.”

DiBello agrees that the federal government could play a big role in the area’s recovery.

“Congress has been lacking in clarity,” DiBello said, leaving many workers in limbo as they weigh whether to change careers, move, or stay and hope for a new space job.

“No one fully understands what NASA is doing and that is a difficult situation,” DiBello said.

Still, a lot of optimism remains. Even laid-off shuttle workers say they want to stay in Florida because they believe the area will bounce back and will offer a better variety of jobs when it does.

Mark Stewart, who was laid off from United Space Alliance on July 22, says he wants to stay in Florida. He worked as an engineer in the shuttle’s liquid hydrogen system, a job he likened to being a “fancy gas station attendant.”

“I’m sure eventually something will come around, the question is how long?” Stewart said. “I can’t sit and twiddle my thumbs. I’d love to stay in that field, I had a good time with it.”

Stewart is looking at going back to school to learn computer-aided design, and hopes to land another engineering job in the area. For most shuttle workers, severance packages and unemployment benefits are keeping their bills paid for now while they look for other jobs or learn new skills.

Even Gov. Rick Scott said he’s optimistic about the area’s potential to reinvent itself as a high-tech hub.

Scott told the Tallahassee Democrat on Monday that the end of NASA’s space shuttle program represents “a big opportunity” for Florida, with a pool of talented engineers available to technology companies.

“I’m very optimistic,” Scott said.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.