the fall and rise of florida's space coast

Since Gerry Mulberry left NASA in 2011, he has worked full-time running a space-themed t-shirt company a few miles down the road from Kennedy Space Center. 

When the shuttle program lapsed in 2011, Gerry Mulberry knew a rebound was around the corner.

"You know, maybe over the long run it will turn out," Mulberry, a former shuttle engineer, recalled thinking in 2011. "This area got hit bad."

Mulberry was one of roughly 8,000 NASA and civilian employees laid off in 2011 when NASA retired shuttle, the United States' fourth human spaceflight program that made up a significant percentage of Florida's space coast workforce.

A wave of layoffs, paired with the already debilitating 2008 recession, began in 2009 when President Obama axed the Constellation Program. The shuttle fleet retirement in 2011 fanned the flames.

Even as Brevard County's overall employment grew steadily in the years after the recession, aerospace engineering was one of the only occupations to continue declining.

Former Titusville Mayor Jim Tully volunteers as a docent at the Titusville Space Museum, serving tourists his first-hand knowledge on the shuttle program.

“With shuttle, we had the dual whammies. The bad economy kicked in at the same time,” said ​Jim Tully, a 24-year veteran engineer of the shuttle program and mayor of Titusville from 2008 to 2016.

 

Tully helmed the city when a large portion of its 46,000 residents worked on the other side of the Indian River at Kennedy Space Center.

 

​“I was the mayor during the worst of it,” Tully said. “The shuttle was a very labor-intensive operation. It took thousands of people. In the Apollo days they had even more people out there, and when that program ended... there were just an amazing number of layoffs and the housing market just completely collapsed."

 

“You would’ve thought that we would’ve learned our lesson locally from that incident, but we didn’t,” reflected Tully, alluding to when President Richard Nixon ended the Apollo program in 1972 after putting 12 U.S. astronauts on the lunar surface.

 

In 2004, President George Bush announced the imminent end of the shuttle’s iconic, 30-year space program, with an expiration date set for 2011. The decision was a blow to Florida's Space Coast, one of the state's most unique economic assets and a long-standing cultural hub of space travel.

 

The 2011 exodus mainly fell into two sets. Most older employees decided to retire while the younger employees found work in other states. "So we had a lot of people leave town,” Tully said.

As the shuttle program phased out, the local appeal for space remained — and diversified. Private sector stimulation introduced new, more pervasive ways to brand space exploration.

In 2014, optimism in Brevard rose as budding private companies broke new ground and promised an infusion of aerospace jobs, attracting a much younger workforce. President Barack Obama prioritized private spaceflight since cancelling Constellation and, by 2015, SpaceX had delivered its fifth cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station from Cape Canaveral.

 

“It’s been a blessing for the community,” Tully said.

 

The area's population was changing, though. Much of the younger employees commuted from bigger metropolitan areas like Orlando, a 40-minute drive to the west.

 

As space companies hired younger workers, recruiting out of Florida's key engineering universities like Embry–Riddle and the University of Central Florida, the number of Brevard's 35 to 55-year-olds dropped 4.4 percent and those older than 60 grew by 4 percent.

 

Still, a nascent commercial space industry seeded Cape Canaveral's post-Shuttle development.

SpaceX leased NASA's pad 39-A in 2014 and tailored it to launch Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy.

In 2014, Elon Musk's SpaceX secured a 20-year contract with NASA to lease Launchpad 39A, the historic site used during the Apollo missions that sent the first humans to the moon.

 

And NASA’s Commercial Crew Program — initially called “Commercial Crew Transportation Capability” — took shape as Boeing and SpaceX unveiled their first crew modules.

Elon Musk visits Kenendy Space Center following the first successful test launch of Falcon Heavy.
Blue Origin's second planned Exploration Park facility will join the company's 750,000-square-foot New Glenn facility.

Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin started to hunt for similar leases on the space coast and had just signed an agreement to supply rocket engines to United Launch Alliance.

 

​By early 2018, the company had completed a 750,000-square-foot rocket factory in Exploration Park, just outside the gates of Kennedy Space Center. The behemoth, which will build and service the company's biggest development rocket to date, New Glenn, has created 330 new jobs in its first phase, according to Space Florida.

 

At 313 feet tall, New Glenn stands slightly taller than the Statue of Liberty, boasts a configuration of 7 BE-4 engines in its reusable first stage booster, and is poised to become the largest commercial rocket to date with 3.8 million pounds of thrust. Its debut launch from Kennedy's Launch Complex 36 — which Blue Origin leased in 2015 — is targeted for 2020.

 

Bezos crafted Blue Origin in 2000 with a Latin mantra, Gradatim Ferociter, which means "Step by step, ferociously. Slow is smooth and smooth is fast."

 

A second, smaller Blue Origin facility in Exploration Park is already in the works. Targeted for a plot of land directly across the street from the New Glenn facility, the new development is  expected to usher in an additional 50 jobs.

A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket carries NASA's Osiris-REx deep space explorer on its way to explore the Bennu asteroid.

While private companies make headway, NASA is working with Boeing on its Space Launch System — a super heavy lift launch vehicle intended to replace the retired space shuttle.

 

Exploration Mission 1, the first test launch of the SLS rocket — which will be used to send rovers to the far side of the moon and, eventually, humans to Mars — is slated for 2020. Cost overruns and management challenges with both Boeing, the prime contractor, and NASA have caused EM1's schedule to slip at least three times. Lockheed Martin’s Orion crew capsule will fit atop SLS.

Mark Bontrager points to the different launch sites in development that surround Space Florida's Exploration Park offices.

"You can leap off this planet anywhere. So what’s gonna make Florida the best place to leap off the surface of the Earth?" Bontrager said.

“In Florida, we’ve had the privilege of a history that we can build on," says Mark Bontrager, Vice President for Spaceport Operations at Space Florida — the state's space-focused economic development agency.

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The state anticipated fallout from the shuttle's retirement, and Bontrager says that NASA, the Air Force, and local municipalities worked as a team on a rebound strategy. "You had the state focused on how do we remake this place for the future. What’s the opportunity?"

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Existing infrastructure at Kennedy desperately needed a remodel after 2011, and the port's launch facilities needed to be "repurposed" to attract commercial partnerships. "We’re now kind of moving into a phase where the repurposing is done," Bontrager said.

Repurposing existing Shuttle infrastructure saves about 30% for a customer over alternative facilities available at market price, according to a 2014 Space Florida report. Bontrager said the Shuttle Landing Facility, a supersized runway for shuttles at Kennedy Space Center, will play a significant role in the agency’s near-future expansion plans.

The Space Coast had 20 rocket launches in 2018, 15 from SpaceX and five from United Launch Alliance. Space Florida's game plan is to increase that launch cadence exponentially.

 

"Next year we’re going to be in the upper 20’s or lower 30’s, then in a few years we’re going to see 50," Bontrager said of the number of launches he'd like to see in the future. "We’re publicly saying we’re going to see 100 to 200 launches a year ten years from now."

 

There’s also a science to launching from Florida’s coast: lifting off from a pad closer to the equator gives rockets an orbital velocity assist. Since the Earth’s spin is fastest at the equator — its widest point — it can give rockets an extra push of up to 300 miles per hour as it escapes the atmosphere. A spaceport as close to the equator as Florida’s is essentially a miniature gravitational slingshot to space for different types of orbits, unlike spaceports from California, Alaska or Maryland.

“The capacity of this spaceport is the largest in the world,” Bontrager boasted.

SpaceX's "Of Course I Still Love You" drone ship docks at Port Canaveral.

The space economy in Cape Canaveral is beginning to spread beyond NASA’s facilities.  

 

The Space Coast hosts the world's second busiest cruise port, taxiing up to 4,568,431 passengers in 2018. Port Canaveral’s "30-Year Strategic Vision Plan," published in early 2018, offers one third of its property to space companies that carry rockets back to land on autonomous drone ships in the Atlantic Ocean. The $79 million plan’s initial development will be broad, the report added, as the space industry realizes its needs in the coming years.

A representative from EshailSat stands outside NASA's press annex following the EshailSat-2 launch for the Qatari government.

The coast’s increased technological capabilities brings new players to the game of spaceflight.

 

Bulgaria launched its first geostationary communications satellite in June 2017, Luxembourg doubled down its fulfillment to NATO in January 2018 with state-owned GovSat’s first defense satellite, and later Bangladesh sent its first satellite to space in its Bangabandhu mission in May.

Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel looks at Kennedy Space Center's "rocket garden" of retired rockets before his country's first satellite launch in January 2018. 

SpaceX president and operations chief Gwynne Shotwell gives Vice President Mike Pence a tour of SpaceX's rocket hangar at pad 39-A.

The White House has built on the Obama administration’s push to privatize space by reviving the National Space Council and culminating decades of ideas into Space Policy Directive 1, a policy signed in December 2017 that calls for lunar and Martian missions in the future.

Sumayya Abukhalil wears a shirt donning "Tereshkova & Ride & Jemison & Ansari," the last names of the first women to fly in space.

“The opportunities are endless, not just for engineers, but for people of all backgrounds and expertises,” said Sumayya Abukhalil, a recent graduate from the University of Central Florida’s aerospace engineering program. “What started as a government funded initiative to go to space in the 1950s is now on a path to becoming a trillion dollar industry.”

Gerry Mulberry says his Space Shirts business is busier than ever since private companies have been ramping up their launch cadence on the Space Coast.

And for Florida’s Space Coast, the space industry is impacting other areas of the economy.

 

“We’re poised to be really busy,” Mulberry said of his Space Shirts company. “The whole interest in the space program and the things that are going on here are going to be great.”

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