Situated on Merritt Island, the space center and adjacent Cape Canaveral Air Force Station have launched all 165 of NASA’s human spaceflights. During the Apollo program, the workforce swelled and surrounding Brevard County boomed from a sleepy area known for its Indian River oranges and grapefruit into a vibrant region with a surfeit of well-paid jobs. In the two decades to 1970, the population of the county swelled tenfold, to 250,000, as America aimed for the moon. Space became a seemingly permanent industry.
These days, ta visitor is far more likely to catch sight of wild pigs or sunning alligators than a roaring rocket. The grounds are redolent with space-age nostalgia. At launch complex 14, a weathered plaque marks John Glenn’s first launch into orbit 50 years ago. A NASA documentary shot that day shows Glenn striding in a silver suit to the van that will take him, pre-dawn, to the floodlit launchpad.
Those were dramatic — and optimistic — times.
Today, not all is gloom. The spaceport has recently managed to claw back a few hundred jobs. Lockheed Martin moved into a “clean room”, where the Apollo capsules were prepped 40 years ago, putting 150 people to work. The company is building the Orion capsule for NASA, with a test launch scheduled for 2014. NASA is developing Orion to travel into deep space; the test vehicle is set to arrive here in May.
Boeing plans to move into one of the three space shuttle hangars. The state of Florida rented the building last fall for 15 years and subleased it to the company, which hopes to eventually put 550 people to work building a capsule to fly to the international space station.
NASA has asked Congress for $400 million in the coming year to retrofit launchpads and other facilities. By 2017, NASA hopes, it will fly a giant new rocket, the Space Launch System, on an uncrewed test flight.
To accommodate the rocket, workers have already torn down the big gray tower on one of the two space shuttle launch pads. Cabana said NASA recouped $621,000 from selling miles of copper wire stripped out of the 25-story structure.
NASA also plans to retrofit a mobile launch tower it never used. Built for the canceled Constellation rockets, the 39-story cross-hatched steel tower cost nearly $500 million and sits parked on Kennedy property.
The future of the second shuttle launchpad remains uncertain. Colloredo said NASA officials were talking with “two or three” potential customers.
One is California-based Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX. The company already occupies an old Air Force hangar and a smaller launchpad on Cape Canaveral, where it is readying a rocket and a capsule for an uncrewed test flight to the international space station in April or May. The company’s founder, PayPal billionaire Elon Musk, has sketched out grand plans for bigger rockets that would call for the huge concrete curtain of the shuttle launchpad.
But there’s still no word on who might be interested in renting the huge Vehicle Assembly Building. For now, the decommissioned space shuttle Atlantis rests on the building’s floor, its engines removed, its windows blinkered.
Behind Atlantis, a sea of gunmetal gray desks, tables, cabinets, office chairs and other discarded furniture awaits removal. Among the castoffs is a lone white refrigerator, its door ajar. It bears a handwritten note that says, “Free to good home.”