Atlantis ended the U.S. space shuttle’s 30-year 135-mission lifespan with a pre-dawn landing in Cape Canaveral, Florida, today, bringing with it two sonic booms and the demise of one of the region’s biggest employers.
About 9,000 people living near the Kennedy Space Center who work for National Aeronautics and Space Administration contractors will lose their jobs, Denise Beasley, a spokeswoman for Brevard Workforce, a county agency that helps space employees find new positions, said in a telephone interview.
That leaves five graduates of the class of 1975 at Astronaut High School in Titusville, 12 miles (19 kilometers) from the space center, with few prospects, they said at a Cracker Barrel restaurant on the eve of Atlantis’s touchdown.
“We’re all 54 years old, and we should be able to relax, and instead we’re all starting over,” said Tish Lawing. Her husband works for a company that helps remove shuttle waste and her father worked in the space center’s launch-control center. “This is going to be a ghost town.”
Titusville is so steeped in the U.S. space program that its countywide telephone area code was changed to 321, the last numbers of a rocket-launch countdown. The city of 43,761 and neighboring Melbourne promote themselves as located on the 72- mile “Space Coast.”
Declines in home prices, already slumping with the national real-estate collapse, will be “exacerbated” by the shuttle’s end, Moody’s Investors Service said in a June 27 report.
Employment in the region is at its lowest since 2000, even after four consecutive months of statewide job gains, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
That kind of contraction will affect businesses unrelated to the space program, said Pat Bell, owner of a local in-home elder-care company.
“I get a trickledown effect from it,” Bell, 61, said in an interview outside a Titusville Holiday Inn where she was speed walking. She said she was concerned that fired space employees will start caring for parents themselves.
“It affects everything. It affects housing, it affects shopping,” Bell said.
The end of the shuttle program also means the tourism industry won’t attract people like Gerald Griffin, 61, who traveled from Meath, outside of Dublin, Ireland, to watch Atlantis land.
“It’s sad,” he said outside his hotel yesterday. “A lot of people fail to appreciate the significance of what has been achieved.”
Shuttle launches and landings account for about 5 percent of the region’s $2.8 billion annual tourism economy, said Rob Varley, director of the Space Coast Tourism Office.
He said the growing number of cruise ships berthed at Port Canaveral, future space tourism and a planned $100 million visitor center dedicated to the shuttle program will provide more year-around activity.
“We know we are going to see a significant loss in corporate business,” he said in a telephone interview. “We think we’ll mitigate most of those losses.”
NASA plans to use private companies to replace some of the functions of the shuttle program. A launch under that system is unlikely before 2015, William H. Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator for Space Operations, said at a news conference.
Meanwhile, jobs have been found for some shuttle workers at related companies in the region, including Embraer SA (EMBR3), a Brazilian maker of commuter jetliners, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said on Bloomberg Television today.
“We have been trying to keep as many of them in the aerospace business as we can,” he said.
At the Cracker Barrel, Kyra Morgan said her husband was let go 13 months ago from his job as a mechanic with United Space Alliance, a group of companies that did shuttle work.
Julie Bledsoe said her husband, an iron worker on rocket- launch pads, found no job after being cut five years ago. He’s been forced into early retirement, she said, meaning she has to continue working as a mural painter.
“It’s a hardship,” she said. “I don’t have a choice.”
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