The Space T-Shirts shop outside the south gate of the Kennedy Space Center was a whirlwind of activity Tuesday, the automatic sewing machines in front noisily spewing out embroidered NASA logos on thick cotton while the print machine out back stamped silkscreened images of Discovery shuttle commander Eileen Collins by the dozens.
Next door, at Shuttles Bar & Grill, cook and co-owner Joe Kalata was churning out half-pound Endeavour, Atlantis and Discovery Burgers for a lively lunchtime crowd.
"We Are Back!" announced the digital marquee outside the Ace Hardware Store in nearby Titusville. "3-2-1 Launch."
Florida's Space Coast has lived through decades of the glory and tragedy of the nation's space program, and Tuesday, the eve of the scheduled resumption of space shuttle flights, was a good day, tinged with excitement and cautious optimism.
Tourists flocked to the area -- an estimated 200,000, by some counts. Hotels were full. Restaurants were buzzing. Business was brisk in certain stores. The small U.S. Space Walk Hall of Fame in Titusville "was crazy," overrun by 50 children brought in by bus from Orlando, said founder Charlie Mars. And the green cloth-draped marquee outside the Titusville Area Chamber of Commerce building said it all: "Green Is For Go. Godspeed Discovery."
On Feb. 1, 2003, NASA's manned space program came to a halt when the shuttle Columbia broke up as it reentered Earth's atmosphere over Texas. It was the third major tragedy for these coastal communities, which counted among their friends and colleagues the astronauts of Apollo 1, which incinerated on Jan. 27, 1967, and the crew of the shuttle Challenger, which blew up upon liftoff on Jan. 28, 1986. Almost 2 1/2 years after the Columbia disaster, the locals are ready for a resumption of shuttle flights.
"We're excited and a little anxious at the same time," Kalata said. "Everyone feels we're ready to resume, but we're just a little nervous because of last time."
The months since the Columbia disaster have been difficult not only emotionally but also economically for the Brevard County communities that surround the Kennedy Space Center -- but not as tough as the post-Challenger period. The earlier hiatus was marked by several thousand layoffs by NASA and its contractors. Unemployed workers sold their houses cheap, residents said. Tourism officials had to devise new marketing slogans for the area.
After Columbia, businesses looked for new sources of revenue, such as Space T-Shirts, which has developed a niche making T-shirts for Rotary Clubs around the country in the past two years.
"When the shuttle is not going and things are slow, this keeps us going," said Babette Wilkins, a friend of Space T-Shirts owner Brenda Mulberry. Wilkins volunteers her time at the shop during the busy pre-launch periods. "This is our bread and butter that keeps us going."
Lynda Weatherman, president of the Economic Development Commission of Florida's Space Coast, said the Kennedy Space Center, with its 14,000 NASA and contractor employees, continues to serve as the area's major economic engine. In 2004, the space center generated $1.5 billion.
But the county's economy is more diverse now than it was at the time Challenger blew up, she said, because of a strong military presence, the growth in defense manufacturing, and the development of Port Canaveral as a cruise ship stop. A concerted marketing effort has also been aimed at tourists visiting nearby Orlando and Walt Disney World by focusing on the Space Coast as a haven for visitors looking for unique bird and wildlife sanctuaries and pristine beaches on Florida's east coast.
Attractive land and housing prices have spurred a real estate and population boom in the past few years, and although the shuttle flight program was grounded again after the Columbia disaster, the Space Center continued its unmanned space program.
"So it is not like our launch activity completely ended," Weatherman said. "We didn't have a market for unmanned launches post-Challenger."
The Space Coast Office of Tourism is in the midst of melding the old with the new by using a spaceman character in a series of advertisements that will tout area attractions other than the Kennedy Space Center. One ad will show an astronaut in his space suit atop a surfboard; another will show him having cocktails with a woman in her space suit at a posh resort; and other ads will show astronauts fishing, relaxing on a cruise ship and bird-watching.
"The bottom line is we recognize who brought us to this dance," said Rob Varley, executive director of the Space Coast Office of Tourism in Viera.
The reality remains that the area is replete with personal connections to the space program, especially in Titusville, a city of about 44,000 located 12 miles west of the Space Center. The city's welcome sign declares itself to be "Space City USA."
"You'd be hard-pressed to find either a person who doesn't work or who has a relative who doesn't work at the space center," said Marcia Gaedcke, executive director of the Titusville Area Chamber of Commerce.
Special correspondent Catharine Skipp contributed to this report.