Crash Course: Florida's Economy Sinks as Space Shuttles Make Final Flights

VIDEO: Atlantis takes its final journey as NASA winds down shuttle
WATCH Swan Song for Shuttle Atlantis

Traffic on route A1A is sluggish today, just like the economy here on Florida's Atlantic coast, south of Cape Canaveral. The state's unemployment rate is reported to be 12 percent, but people around here say they cannot believe it is that low.

People are hurting here, just as they are around the country, but in the seaside towns around the Kennedy Space Center, they have extra reason. NASA is winding down the space shuttle program, which has employed thousands of people around here for 30 years -- and the Obama administration has canceled the program that would have come after it.

"I feel sorry for those guys," said Bill Thompson, a painting contractor from Orlando who brought his son to a local air show. "Businesses are closing their doors. Just look at all the vacancies. They talk about the trickle-down effect? Well, it trickles down to me."

In the heady days of John Glenn and Neil Armstrong, this part of Florida began to call itself the Space Coast, but today, except for the Space Coast Credit Union ("Great Checking. No Drama."), there are few signs that astronauts used to hang out in Cocoa Beach.

Sure, you can turn right on I Dream of Jeannie Lane, but the Saturn apartments look quaint compared to the Ocean Landings Resort and the Twin Towers.

Florida has moved on.

"I've had to lay people off," said Thompson. "I've got to take care of myself first."

Gene Gibbar scratches his head when he talks about the end of the shuttle program. He says he came here to retire.

"I don't know what all those people are going to do," he says. "I guess they'll have to go somewhere else."

"Have you seen very much effect yet?" a reporter asks.

"Well, not really." He pauses. "Except for the housing market -- we're trying to sell our house. It's been on the market since June." He pauses again. "We've had three lookers."

Blame the Democrats. And the Republicans

This part of Florida has been through tough times before. The thousands of space workers -- and people in related fields -- lost their jobs in the 1970s after the end of the moon landings. It happened again in the 1990s when NASA's budget shrank during the Clinton administration.

Then came that awful morning in 2003 when the space shuttle Columbia was supposed to land at the Kennedy Space Center but never made it. Having apparently been damaged on liftoff two weeks earlier, it broke up as it re-entered the atmosphere.

Election 2010: Jobs Disappear on Florida's Space Coast

In the aftermath, President Bush ordered NASA to retire the remaining shuttles by 2010, and start a new program -- called Constellation -- to send astronauts back to the moon and eventually on to Mars. Constellation ended with a whimper in January; the Obama administration said it was too expensive and not very inventive, going where Apollo had taken astronauts a generation before.

Both the Republicans and the Democrats have made their share of enemies around here. They're blamed for wasteful government spending -- and for cutting off spending when local jobs are involved.

"Neither party has done that well," said Bill Thompson as he sat under a beach umbrella, waiting for stunt planes to go by. "I can't think of one thing that they're excellent at."

The space shuttle Discovery would be making the program's 133rd and last flight this week if not for howls of protest from members of Congress, especially from Southern states -- Florida, Alabama, Texas -- with major NASA installations. There will be at least one more flight in February, and Congress has passed a bill that calls for an extra flight next summer.

"There is an irony here too big to miss," said Roger Launius, the former NASA staff historian who is now a curator at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington. "Conservative senators who would normally complain about big government and wasteful spending, they're the ones upset when jobs in their states are on the line."

The Obama administration has proposed that private companies take over for the space shuttles, ferrying astronauts and supplies to the International Space Station, and some see opportunity there. At the Cape -- just south of the pad where Discovery waits for launch -- a Falcon 9 rocket stands ready for a November test flight. It was built by SpaceX, the company started by the young Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk. SpaceX and several competitors already have contracts with NASA to develop spaceworthy ferry craft for the ISS.

Election 2010: Jobs Disappear on Florida's Space Coast

But SpaceX is a lean, mean operation compared to the shuttle. It is based in California, and has talked of making future launches from New Mexico or the tropical Pacific. Musk says he wants to make reliable rockets by keeping them simple -- all of which means employing fewer people on the Space Coast.

"They're not going to take up the slack," said a NASA employee who asked not to be named.

Along Route A1A this week, there are hundreds of political posters, candidates promising to get Florida back to work. But there is very little mention of space in local campaigns.

"A lot of people have gone from here, not near the number of people we had," said Maudie Harris, who works at the barber shop at Patrick Air Force Base south of Cocoa Beach. "They just don't know what's going to come next."