Shuttle's demise brings Titusville down to earth

Business owner Stephen Gaughran (C) sells a beer to a regular customer from behind the bar inside his billiard hall in Titusville, Florida July 6, 2011
Image caption Stephen Gaughran sells a beer to a regular customer in his billiard hall in Titusville

Across the river from the Kennedy Space Center, the 45,000-strong population of Titusville in Florida has seen it all before.

The Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programmes began and ended here in the 1960s and 1970s.

When the space shuttle lands on 21 July, it will join the ranks of Nasa's mothballed programmes.

Along with it, more than 8,000 people will have lost their jobs at the Kennedy Space Center - a mixture of Nasa, space centre and contractor roles.

Most have already been laid off, with the final 2,000 going in the days after the shuttle lands - and the effects will be far-reaching along Florida's "space coast".

Officials say the lay-offs, coupled with the state's record unemployment rate of almost 11%, will create the "perfect economic storm".

Tourist attraction

On Friday, 8 July, as the space shuttle took to the skies for one final time, there was not a blade of grass or grain of sand on which to stand.

Almost a million people flocked here to watch the lift-off along the area's parks and beaches.

From the launch of the first Saturn rocket in 1961, the people of Titusville became used to the swell of tourists and influx of cash that each launch brought.

Not only that, many of them also had jobs at the space centre.

The workforce has now dwindled from a high of 17,000 in the 1990s to just that couple of thousand by the end of July.

Titusville grew up around the Kennedy Space Center, booming first in the 1960s.

Now it is struggling to work out what to do next and shrugging off space exploration will not be easy.

'Huge mistake'

The space programme has a hold on this town like few others.

Image caption Stickers from various Nasa missions adorn the beer tap at Dogs R Us, a restaurant and bar in Titusville

Space references are everywhere: the town's logo combines beaches, palm trees and the shuttle; elementary schools are named after the shuttles; and there are high schools called Satellite and Astronaut.

Even the area phone code is 3-2-1.

Charles Mars runs a small space museum with hundreds of artefacts from the cancelled programme.

It is not the memorabilia itself that keeps tourists coming back for more but the view of the launch.

Time after time, launch days meant full hotels and packed restaurants. The frustration in his voice is clear to hear.

"I think this administration has made a huge mistake," he says.

"We had an excellent programme going with an excellent team with all the logistics to make it happen.

"We have put back our manned spacecraft programme by years. It's not devastating for us, it's just bad," he adds.


Marcia Gaedcke is from the chamber of commerce here and like many long-time residents is personally linked to the shuttle programme.

Image caption "We'll have to focus on other things," says Marcia Gaedcke

Her father, sister and brother-in-law all worked at Kennedy Space Center at one time.

"It's going to be really hard to us to finally realise that it's done, that the shuttle's no longer going to fly," Marcia says.

She pauses to reflect for a moment.

"We still have plenty of space business happening but not the kind of stuff that draws the crowds like shuttle launches do," she says. "We'll have to focus on other things."

The shuttle's closure was not unexpected, having first been announced in 2004.

But when President Barack Obama cancelled the programme that was supposed to follow it, returning astronauts to the Moon, it meant huge lay-offs were inevitable.

In such a close-knit community, where 40% of the centre's employees live, countless other businesses will be affected.

Dwindling business

A short drive down Astronaut Highway, Henry Simonsen runs the Pumpernickel Deli.

Image caption Business has dwindled for businesses like Henry Simonsen's delicatessen

They used to cater for some of Nasa's biggest parties.

"It's a sad thing to see," Henry says.

"We've been through two shuttles that have had accidents and there was always a downtime after that but never anything like this.

"The items that we carry here in our deli have changed through the years as business has dwindled," he adds.

At the pet store next door, owner Jason Parlotto says the recession, together with redundancies, hardly make goldfish a necessity.

"It's nowhere like it used to be," he points out.

"I had 10 times the amount of business. It's slowed down as the shuttle has come to a halt."

Blessing in disguise

Titusville is still reeling from the housing crisis, making it tougher for workers to sell their homes and move elsewhere for a job.

The town's mayor Jim Tulley believes that could be a blessing in disguise.

Some of the most highly educated engineers, project managers and technicians, and aerospace workers live in Titusville.

"This town is full of people who put man on the Moon and ran shuttles for 30 years," Jim says.

"We're not people that are going to run away from challenges.

"If anyone can adapt and start new businesses these people can," he says.

Mr Tulley used to work at Nasa before taking redundancy and is confident that the crowds will return, once private companies take on the challenge of manned spaceflight.

"I expect the launch rate for the commercial launches will actually be at a faster rate than we ever launched shuttles," he says.

"We'll still be a part of space here."

Peaceful prospect

Until that happens, there is a push for tourism to be the main draw for this area.

Image caption Crowds like this, watching Atlantis lift off, were a boon for the local economy

The sandy beaches stretch for miles, cruise companies are setting sail from nearby Port Canaveral, and the Kennedy Space Center will still be open to visitors.

The other retired shuttles have all found homes at museums across the country.

When Atlantis touches down, its retirement home will be here.

A peaceful prospect, given the skies above will be that much quieter.

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