The people of the Space Coast --
what they call this sandy stretch of the world -- have never been comfortable with fame.
Although houses with a view of shuttle launchings fetch top dollar and the vitality of towns surrounding Kennedy Space Center is tied almost completely to the space program, this area is basically filled with quiet people, most of them high-technology workers.
"I never even made it through 'The Right Stuff,' " said Robert Murkshe, mayor of Cocoa Beach during what he refers to as the "go-go years" in the 1960s when America's Gateway to the Stars was furious with activity. "Poetic license is something we usually can do without."
It is not that the locals have no regard for the mystique of space flight. On the Space Coast, folks can quote launch dates and crew names the way baseball fans can reel off years of pitching statistics. One hotel is named the Polaris. And at one movie house customers are treated to a slide show of space history before every film.
In the last three decades, the population of Brevard County has grown from fewer than 20,000 to almost 350,000. The engineers who ride to work each day along Rte. A1A, also called Boulevard of the Astronauts, are accustomed to the region's economic vagaries.
Many remember the brutal "space recession" that pushed the county unemployment rate to 17 percent by 1973 after the National Aeronautics and Space Administration ended the Apollo moon-landing program. Some of the country's most technologically sophisticated workers began pumping gasoline.
No one here was prepared for the sudden destruction of the space shuttle Challenger on Jan. 28 and, although the country and the region have pledged a continued commitment to the shuttle program, Space Coast residents are worried that the bad times have returned.
"I've been down here since 1958," said T.J. O'Malley, who retired several years ago as a senior officer of the space transportation division of Rockwell International Corp. "I drove right across the country when they put the first American satellite up there. I want to say, don't even think that the space program is going to die. But people really feel the pain," he said.
Late last month, NASA announced that it would cut almost 10 percent of its work force in the aftermath of the Challenger explosion. Florida Today, the local newspaper, responded by offering free classified advertisements to laid-off engineers, and shuttle contractors have offered employes free long-distance calls and job counseling. A NASA telephone hotline, established immediately after the accident, remains available day and night.
More than 15,000 persons work at the space center. Spaceport U.S.A., the visitor center filled with shiny rockets and freeze-dried souvenirs, brings another 2 million to the vast expanse of marsh in central Florida each year.
The center, meant to be a monument to American creativity, features a movie called "The Dream Is Alive," an overwhelmingly powerful portrait of the experience of riding a shuttle. These days, when it ends, most of the crowd walks away in tears.
For most Space Center tourists, the instinct to explore space seems inevitable, unchanged even by the fiery death of the seven astronauts aboard Challenger.
"That's just the way it has always been in the history of the world," said Robert Mcleatch, a North Carolinian. "You reach out and you get burned, and then you reach out a little more carefully."
Asked what he thought life would be like if the U.S. space program were ended, he said, "That's like asking what life would be like without Velcro." Velcro was originally developed as a fastener for use in space.
Still, when William P. Rogers, chairman of the presidential commission investigating the Challenger explosion, announced that faulty decisions at the space center clearly played a role in the disaster, it caused a nervous shudder among workers there.
"We're not just talking about an accident anymore," said Rusty Fischer, proprietor of Bernard's Surf, restaurant to the astronauts for more than 20 years. "We are talking about the way people work."
Such fear that something has gone wrong in this land of stolid, hard-working military personnel and engineers has turned into a big scare on the Space Coast.
Most people familiar with the space program here, or test flight in general, said they were not surprised that a major accident finally occurred. Retired Air Force brigadier general Charles (Chuck) Yeager, one of the nation's flight heros, has said repeatedly that the only thing to do after an accident such as the Challenger disaster: "Press on. If you fall off the horse, you got to get back on. . . . It's the only thing to do."
It is difficult to say the romance has been drained from a place that has always thought that romance should be left to Hollywood. But something is gone from the Space Coast.
"This is sort of an innocent place," said Jim Rathman, a car dealer and friend to several early astronauts. "I'm not really sure what this all means. But, whether we lose jobs or not, I don't think the next generation will look at these launch pads the way ours did."