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.
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."