April 17, 2010 -- They have watched the plumes of fire and smoke here for 49 years, heard the roar of rocket engines, felt the ground-shaking beneath them. They joke that a love of spaceflight is programmed into their DNA, and speak proudly of fathers and grandfathers before them having worked in "the program."
So closely intertwined are the lives of Florida's Space Coast community and NASA's human spaceflight program, which since 1961 has launched mankind on hundreds of voyages of discovery, that even the telephone dialing code here is 321.
But after so many countdowns, so many launches, the clock is now ticking toward what could be a hard landing for those who depend on NASA for their livelihoods.
The pending retirement of the space shuttle fleet after three more missions -- coupled with President Obama's controversial plans to dismantle Constellation, the program in which the space agency has for the past five years been developing a new generation of vehicles to take astronauts to the moon and ultimately Mars -- will strip this area of a major economic engine, many worry.
"Spaceflight is a major part of what keeps this area alive," says Andy Gravina, of Cocoa, who works as a server administrator at Kennedy Space Center. "And there's only so much work out there if we're not flying."
Thousands Stand to Lose Their Jobs
About 8,000 space center workers stand to lose their jobs after the shuttle flies its final mission, scheduled for September. Constellation was to have yielded vehicles to replace it, but not for at least another four years, during which NASA must buy seats on Russian Soyuz capsules launching from Kazakhstan to get American astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
During a visit to the space center last week, President Obama argued that by terminating Constellation and channeling $6 billion to commercial spacecraft developers instead, the yawning chasm between the shuttle era ending and the next generation of vehicles coming on line will be narrowed.
Luminaries such as Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan, the first and last men on the moon, are not convinced.
"It appears that we will have wasted our current $10-plus billion investment in Constellation and, equally importantly, we will have lost the many years required to recreate the equivalent of what we will have discarded," they said in a statement, which was also signed by Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell. "The availability of a commercial transport to orbit as envisioned in the President's proposal cannot be predicted with any certainty, but is likely to take substantially longer and be more expensive than we would hope."
The White House believes that by 2012, up to 2,500 new jobs will be created in Florida's commercial space industry than would have been available under NASA had Constellation continued, off-setting the job losses by about 60 percent.
White House Pledges to Reduce Economic Impact
To "ease the transition for workers dislocated while the new space strategy is implemented," the administration will dedicate $40 million to supporting the regional economy, White House documents state. "The men and women who work in the Space Coast's aerospace industry are some of the most talented and highly trained in the nation. It's critical that their skills are tapped as we transform and grow the country's space exploration efforts."
But locally, there is skepticism, doubt, and fear. Unemployment in Brevard County, where the Kennedy Space Center is located, is already running at over 12 percent and no one knows whether Mr. Obama's expectations for the commercial rocket industry might be too ambitious.
At a recent "Save Space" rally in Cocoa, speakers urged Obama to rethink his plans to ax Constellation, keep the Space Coast at the forefront of human spaceflight and keep America from losing its space exploration crown to Russia or China.
"We need to move forward with a commercial spaceflight capability, but not at the expense of NASA," retired space shuttle astronaut Winston Scott told the crowd.
Recalling how a college student named David had written asking if he could meet to discuss pursuing a career as an astronaut, Captain Scott admitted: "I don't want to have to look at him and say 'David, if you want to be an American astronaut, you need to learn Russian or Chinese.'"