Once dormant, the Florida coast hums with space launches

TITUSVILLE, Fla. (AP) — A decade ago, Florida’s Space Coast lay dormant.

The space shuttle program had ended, and with it the steady stream of space enthusiasts who filled the area’s restaurants and hotel and motel rooms during regular astronaut launches.

The 7,400 laid-off Kennedy Space Center shuttle workers struggled to find work in their fields, and many left for other states. The county’s unemployment rate soared to nearly 12 percent, and foreclosures were rampant after the housing crisis hit Florida harder than most states. Miracle City Mall, a once-thriving shopping destination that had been around since the Apollo moon landings in the 1960s, was abandoned in the mid-2010s, and other stores and restaurants closed.

“It was devastating. Along with the fact that our nation was going into recession, we had lost our bread. We had lost our economy,” said Daniel Diesel, the mayor of Titusville, which is across the Indian River from the Kennedy Space Center.

Today, the county’s unemployment rate is under 3%, and the Space Coast is buzzing with jobs and space launches. The first launch of NASA’s new moon rocket set for Saturday was expected to draw hundreds of thousands of visitors like Ed Mayall. He traveled more than 4,300 miles (about 6,920 kilometers) from London to witness the first launch attempt on Monday.

“It’s so exciting, the thought of being able to go into space, me, possibly with all the commercial programs going on, just makes you want to live it,” Mayall said. “Like it’s just exciting to be around.”

While most of the past six decades of space operations in Florida have been orchestrated by NASA and the Air Force, this recent resurgence in the Space Coast has been fueled over the past decade by private, commercial companies like Space X and Blue Origin, founded by two of the richest people on the planet, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. Several launches a month now take place along the Space Coast, with Space X launching its Starlink Internet satellites every few weeks.

Perhaps nothing better captured the return of the Space Coast than the first Space X astronaut landing in the spring of 2020, which put Florida’s central coast back in the business of catapulting people into space and marked the first time a private company launched humans into space. orbit. The efforts drew hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world and ended a nine-year launch drought for NASA.

As of last year, the Kennedy Space Center had more than 12,300 government employees, private contractors and other employees working at the spaceport, just a few thousand fewer employees than the 15,000 employees during the shuttle program’s heyday.

Along the Space Coast, new subdivisions have been permitted, new hotels have been built, small manufacturing plants supporting the space industry are under construction in industrial parks, and a glitzy outdoor shopping district recently opened in the Miracle City Mall footprint. Last year, the Milken Institute ranked the Space Coast metro area as the second-strongest economy in the U.S. using an index based on jobs, wages and high-tech growth. The ranking for the metro increased by 47 places compared to three years ago.

In addition to the growth of commercial space companies, the Space Coast’s economy has diversified over the past decade beyond its traditional dependence on space, to include defense contractors, cruise ships, auto parts manufacturing, and nature tourism.

“We’re growing from so many angles,” the mayor said. “Our economy thrives when the space program thrives. There’s just no doubt about that, but we also like to be able to say we’re more diverse than we used to be.”

He said he was a “space lad” growing up and was familiar with the boom-and-bust nature of the space business since his family moved to the Space Coast in 1965 so his father could take a job on the Apollo program. NASA budgets from the White House and Congress have greatly affected life on the Space Coast, he said.

Jessica Costa, owner of C’s Waffles in Titusville, remembers how quiet the Space Coast became after the space shuttle program ended. Now that there are constant rocket launches, he doesn’t take them for granted.

“I’m just happy it’s flourishing the way it is,” Costa said. “I’m glad they’ve brought the program back now. I’m glad people can come out and enjoy it with us.”

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