Space Shuttle Launches on Final Flight

PHOTO: The space shuttle Atlantis launches July 8, 2011.
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Space shuttle Atlantis, delayed almost to the last second by a computer glitch, left the launch pad here at the Kennedy Space Center, punched a hole in the clouds, and disappeared into the history books.

After 135 flights in 30 years, it was the last space shuttle launch ever. And it may be the last time America launches astronauts for many years.

SEE MORE: 30 Years Of Space Shuttle Missions

At the Kennedy Space Center, throngs of people applauded, cheered--and in some cases wept. This part of Florida has lived in large part for space shuttle launches, and there is no clear plan for what comes next.

Just off Apollo Road here in Titusville, there was a for sale sign in front of a three-bedroom house. Asking price: $32,000. The house was in foreclosure.

Titusville is the town closest to the Kennedy Space Center on Florida's Atlantic coast, and Atlantis may be the last ship out of port for a long time.

There will still be other launches – an ambitious probe to Jupiter is scheduled to leave in August – but not with astronauts, at least for several years. And that hurts in a place that has, since the days of John Glenn, called itself the Space Coast.

"I have a feeling this town will become a ghost town," said Brian Tagtow, who lives in Titusville. "Businesses are already shutting down. There's nobody hiring anymore."

Private Enterprise to the Rescue -- Please

For 30 years now this area has drawn life from the space shuttles, with the legions of people who came to work on them or watch them. When shuttles were scheduled for launch, four or five times in a typical year, the place would bulge. The local Super 8 motel, which charged $49 a night at other times, could easily book the same rooms for $250 when there was a countdown in progress.

What's more, there were 15,000 people who worked for NASA or its contractors – to say nothing of all the grocery clerks and gas station attendants, real estate agents and car dealers who lived here because astronauts left from here. The space agency says that after Atlantis returns from its final mission, the workforce at Kennedy will drop to 8,200.

Click Here for Pictures: 30 Years of the Space Shuttle

Atlantis used launch pad 39A -- the very same one from which Apollo 11 left for the moon in 1969. In 2009, pad 39B, a mile away, was reconfigured for Constellation, the project ordered up by the Bush administration to take astronauts back to the moon and, eventually, on to Mars. But the Obama White House redid the budget numbers, said Constellation was unworkable, and canceled it. It has suggested that private companies take up the slack, launching astronauts to the International Space Station so NASA won't have to buy seats on Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

Meanwhile, workers have already been disassembling pad 39B. Slowly, in case a private company decides it is worth converting for a new space project.

"We tried to get companies interested," said an old NASA hand who asked not to be identified, "but they want to launch from New Mexico." The weather there is dry and more predictable, with no sea breezes to corrode metal and fewer thunderstorms to delay launches. NASA did announce a new contract Thursday with Sierra Nevada Space Systems, a company that hopes to fly a spaceplane called the Dream Chaser. There is also SpaceX, headed by PayPal millionaire Elon Musk, with its Falcon rockets. And NASA insists its Orion capsule, originally meant to fly Constellation astronauts, will still fly – though for what missions nobody in the space business is quite sure.

The Space Coast Office of Tourism says things are really not that dire. Only 5 percent of the tourist dollars that came in here, it says, were during shuttle launches.

"We've been down this road before, and we survived," said Rob Varley, the executive director of the tourism office. "We've diversified. Our biggest attraction is the beach."

Space Shuttle Ends; Dark Times for Sunshine State

There are also cruise ships regularly leaving from Port Canaveral, south of the space center, though Varley said Titusville, which is inland, will feel the brunt of the shuttle program's end.

University of Central Florida economist Mike Slotkin said this is strike three for the area. It was already hit by the housing bust, the great recession, and now this.

"One out of every seven people in this county is a food stamp client," he said. "I mean, we've got some issues in this county and it just seems like it's one hit that we're taking after another."

At the cape (they still call it "the cape," though technically the shuttle complex is on Merritt Island, 20 miles north), there is simmering anger over the Obama decision to stop shuttle flights without a successor program. The administration has called on NASA to get astronauts back into the business of exploring, to do what the early pioneers of space did. It has proposed they go to an asteroid – though nobody has figured out which passing asteroid might make a good target.

Varley said he takes the president's decision as a wakeup call, to attract new companies to Florida, and ultimately, to space.

"We've got the world's biggest tailgate party here" with Atlantis' launch, he said, "but then we've got to buckle down and get to work."

ABC News' Steven Portnoy contributed reporting for this story.

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