It’s the Monday after the big space shuttle launch – amazing it went on time, eh? -- and there are a few loose ends to tie up: of economics and the people left behind, sucked into the wake of a rocket ship that will no longer fly.
But first, let me say this: Covering the launch of Atlantis was a once-in-career assignment. Hours later, I lingered at the press mound – the hillock some three miles from launchpad 39A, where I witnessed the lift-off. I took some photos. The place emptied out in a hurry, and the weathered countdown clock, empty launchpad, and flapping American flag made it all feel a little forlorn. I felt the post-launch letdown I’d been warned about.
But my little downturn is trivial compared with the one headed for the Space Coast, that 50-mile stretch of Florida’s Atlantic seaboard that was once rich with aerospace jobs.
The day before the launch, I drove through Titusville, just across the Indian River from Kennedy Space Center. Up and down the main drag, businesses already lay empty, lots fallow. A truck center sat abandoned, asphalt cracking, yellow police tape oddly ringing the site. Nearby, two gas stations were boarded-up. I walked into the crumbling Budget Motel, curious about their launch-day rates: $249. I hoped they filled all the rooms -- they’ll need the money.
Then I drove out to a causeway where old-timers had set up their RVs four days before the big event. There I met Dick Lucier, 72, who worked on the Apollo program as a logistics manager. He said he was laid off after Apollo, in 1973, then rehired to supervise work on shuttle’s rocket boosters in 1978. He handled the hardware and worked to instill a sense of responsibility in his crew. “What we did affected astronaut’s lives,” he said. The tan corduroy Thiokol Corporation ball cap perched on his head told me he still feels that pride. (Thiokol built the solid rocket boosters.)
Lucier told me about the cold morning in 1986 when he and his crew watched with horror as Challenger exploded. “I was right there,” he said, pointing across the water to the roof of the Vertical Assembly Building, where they had readied the rocket that proved fatal. “Our lives just went with it,” he said.
Lucier’s daughter has carried on the family tradition as a shuttle worker. But two days after Atlantis is scheduled to land, she will lose her job.
Back in Titusville, I talked to Bob Arnold, who for years has set up a PA system to broadcast shuttle countdowns to the crowd at Space View Park. He was angry. He feels the country is abandoning a region that’s provided five decades of inspiration for the world. If Arnold had 10 minutes to talk to the president, he’d say, “We need help. People down here are desperate.”
Yes, the Space Coast is hurting. The turmoil highlights an aspect of the shuttle program that doesn’t get much mention: For all the other things it was – an engineering marvel, a flawed design, an inspiration – the space shuttle was a huge jobs program. And it was the labor-intensive nature of the shuttle that doomed it. The orbiters were like high-performance, finicky Maseratis. Today’s space transport requires Toyotas, not sports cars: inexpensive, reliable, maybe a little boring.
Enter SpaceX. The California company already has a $1.6 billion NASA contract to re-supply the space station. Within three years, it hopes to fly astronauts on its stripped-down Dragon capsule. Everything SpaceX does screams efficiency. At its Cape Canaveral launchpad, the company bought a liquid oxygen tank for $1 over scrap. And instead of building a million-pound crawler that takes a day to roll a rocket three miles, they use a little aircraft tug to pull Falcon 9 rockets 100 yards from hangar to launchpad. The trip takes 15 minutes. The launch control room, inside a modest single-story building, is about the size of a suburban living room (albeit one loaded with flat screens). The efficient, stripped-down feel of the place was striking – and the low-cost flipside to the shuttle program’s hugeness.
The shuttle jobs are gone – and it’s hard to see many of them coming back. But who knows. Maybe former astronaut and current SpaceX employee Garrett Reisman is right that the coming era of commercial spaceflight will be one of great innovation, a parallel to the era of maturation in the aviation industry that blossomed between the two world wars. Maybe a hundred capsules will bloom, and zooming into orbit will finally be safe, cheap and routine. We’ll see.
In the meantime, if you want a fuller sense of the plight of the Space Coast, read these two well-reported stories from USA Today. The first says that 25,000 people “will take a direct hit” from the end of the shuttle program. And to hear from shuttle workers during their last days on the job, read veteran space journalist Traci Watson’s piece.