Space Coast jobs at stake

Last week’s launch of the Space
Shuttle Discovery has given the countdown a new meaning: There are only three
more shuttle missions scheduled before the program is shut down.

Barring a last minute reprieve, or
unexpected delays, the final voyage will take place Sept. 16. After that, the
United States will have no reliable way to put an astronaut in orbit, other
than hitching rides with foreign space programs.

And that has produced something of
an existential crisis along Florida’s Space Coast, which has seen its economy
evolve with the space race and is so culturally intertwined with the launch
ritual that its area code was changed to 321.

“It’s the end of an era,” said
Brenda Mulberry, as she paced her T-shirt shop on Merritt Island, just a few miles
from the Kennedy Space Center. For the last 25 years, her company, Space
Shirts, has printed limited edition T-shirts for each mission. Armies of
tourists that descend on the town for the launches snap them up.

“We say we are so close that we
feel the movement of every launch,” Mulberry said.

That sensation is not only physical
but also economic.

The power of the space program
ripples far beyond the towns huddled around Cape Canaveral.

Space Florida, the state’s
aerospace economic development agency, estimates the shuttle shutdown will cost
the state 9,160 direct and some 23,000 direct and indirect jobs. It will also
gut the $1.93 billion that NASA pumps into Florida annually to support launch
and landing operations.

“We are in what you would call a perfect
economic storm,” said Melissa Stains, the president of the Cocoa Beach Area
Chamber of Commerce. The average pay for a Kennedy Space Center job is $77,235
a year, or about twice the county average, and the space-related jobs are vital
in Brevard County where unemployment is running 12.7 percent.

“We are in a recession, we have
unemployment higher than it has ever been and now we are looking to get out of
the space business, which seems unbelievable because if you go to Washington,
D.C. — where I’ve been for the last two weeks — all they talk about is `jobs,
jobs, jobs,’ ” said Stains.

It’s not that the United States is
abandoning space, but rarely has the path to the stars been so murky.

While the 2011 budget proposal
increases NASA’s budget by $276 million, it also pulls the plug on the
Constellation Program, which was designed to take America back to the moon by
2020 and eventually to Mars. The budget also kills the Ares rocket program, the
next generation heavy-lift vehicle.

Instead, the administration has
earmarked $6 billion to push private companies to pick up the slack shuttling
cargo and humans to the International Space Station. But by most estimates, it
will be years before private industry is ready to take on that role.

And many see Constellation as a
vital Band-Aid that will help the state retain its talent and infrastructure
while the private ventures play catch up.

“In 26 or 27 years I have never
seen a presidential space budget greeted with as much alarm and concern as this
one,” said Elliot Pulham, the chief executive of the Space Foundation, a nonprofit
space advocacy group. “Some of the ideas in there are fantastic but they are
premature. . . The decision to terminate Constellation has severe consequences
for the rest of the space industry.”

Dale Ketcham, a long-time space
advocate and the director of the Spaceport Research and Technology Institute at
the University of Central Florida, conceded that the budget rollout was mishandled
but hoped that President Barack Obama would lay out clear goals for the sector
during a speech he’s due to deliver on the Space Coast April 15.

“There is a strong sense that he
is abandoning human space flight, which is extremely painful and not popular
here,” Ketcham said. “But I personally think he canceled Constellation not
because they don’t want to go to the moon, but because they want to get there
faster and the course we were on was unacceptable.”

Still, Florida has no guaranteed
role in this new world order of private companies hauling passengers and
freight.

The state’s traditional advantage
has always been its geography — close to the equator where the Earth’s
rotation gives rockets an extra kick and reduces fuel costs. But as states and
nations court commercial space companies, they are doling out incentives that
change the rules of the game, said former astronaut Winston Scott, who is the
dean of the College of Aeronautics at the Florida Institute of Technology.

“Sometimes the laws of economics
trump the laws of physics,” he said. “If these commercial companies get the
contracts and funding, they will go wherever they can launch the cheapest. If
that means going down to Central America that’s where they will go.”

Just two decades ago the United
States was the clear front-runner in delivering commercial payloads into space,
and Florida was a premier launch site.

That’s no longer the case. From
2004 to 2008, almost half of all commercial orbital launches were carried out
by Russia, Europe was responsible for 21 percent and the United States
accounted for 17 percent, according the Space Foundation’s annual report.

Florida is also facing competition
from other states. The Mid Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Wallops Island, Va.,
recently pulled off a coup when Orbital Sciences announced it would use the
facility to operate its Taurus II rockets, which are designed to take unmanned
cargo deliveries to the International Space Station.

“Wallops Island is the biggest
threat to Florida. It is being built from scratch with 21st Century technology
and that is what is going to kill us,” said Barney Bishop III, the president
of Associated Industries of Florida. “The one advantage we have over them is
that we are closer to the equator. But if Virginia is willing to subsidize the
fuel costs, then there is no advantage. . . . They are eating our lunch every
day.”

The state has had some success.
California-based SpaceX — run by former PayPal founder Elon Musk — has set up
operations at Space Launch Complex 40 in Cape Canaveral where the company
recently test-fired its Falcon 9 rocket, which is intended to take cargo into
orbit.

But space advocates say the state
needs to do more to attract companies like SpaceX. Legislation is currently
working its way through Tallahassee that would plow $32.6 million into
Florida’s industry and give Space Florida a deeper war chest to pursue commercial
operators.

Space Florida President Frank
DiBello will need the boost if he hopes to make good on his goal to triple the
size of Florida’s space industry by 2020.

To do that, he will not only try to
woo commercial launch companies, but diversify the state’s space economy. Among
his plans are to make Florida the “ground node” for the International Space
Station, allowing nations without space programs to remotely use the orbiting
lab. He also hopes to capitalize on one of Florida’s flagship industries:
tourism.

While Florida has built an empire
out of fun-in-the-sun tourism, it has been caught flat-footed in attracting the
incipient space tourism industry, aimed at well-heeled travelers with ambitions
of being astronauts.

The frontrunner in that sector is
Virgin Galactic, which recently rolled out Space Ship Two, which is designed to
carry up to six passengers into low Earth orbit. After a nationwide search, the
company set up shop in New Mexico, after the state offered to build the company
a $200 million space port.

There have also been space tourism
deals inked in Sweden (giving passengers a glimpse of the Northern Lights),
South Korea and the Middle East. Globally there are 31 space ports in operation
or under construction, DiBello said, and there’s no reason Florida shouldn’t
have a piece of the action.

“We have the cachet and history.
We have the total package,” DiBello said, envisioning jaunts to Disney World
and the Kennedy Space Center. “You have tourism and you get the aura of the
astronaut training. It’s very different than going to New Mexico or Indiana to
fly.”

Jesse Ross came to the Space Coast
30 years ago, after he lost his auto manufacturing job in Michigan. Now he
makes his living selling jewelry — including 14-karat shuttle and astronaut
pendants — to tourists and workers at the Kennedy Space Center.

Back at the car plant, he recalls,
the factory would close for three weeks every August for “change-over” when
the equipment would be tweaked to roll out the next year’s model.

For Ross, the same thing is
happening to the U.S. aerospace sector.

“There is no way we
are going to let this die,” he said of Florida’s space infrastructure. “This
is just a big, huge, massive change-over . . . It will hurt for awhile but
we’ll be back.”

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This NASA image shows space shuttle Discovery as it sits on Launch Pad 39A in preparation for mission STS-131, at the Kennedy Space Center, March 28, 2010. NASA is making final preparations for Discovery’s targeted launch date of March 28, 2010.
UPI/Amanda Diller/NASA
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