KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Florida, May 14, 2010 -- Space Shuttle Atlantis lifted off today on its final flight, and all along the nearby Florida coast, people watched, applauded, and mourned.
Atlantis is on a 12-day mission to deliver supplies to the International Space Station.. There are only two more scheduled launches after it before U.S. astronauts begin hitching rides aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft… launched from Kazakhstan.
That will mean difficult changes for thousands of people in Florida; they have lived off of the shuttle program since the first flight in 1981.
Driving down the broad highways here along the Space Coast, you'll pass the Space Shuttle Inn. The main drag in Cape Canaveral is called Astronauts Boulevard – though forget about finding a room there the night before a shuttle launch. Pushing on to the Kennedy Space Center on Florida's route 3, you'll shoot by Shuttle's Dugout Bar and Grill.
Or stop in for a drink. Outside there is a 14-foot-long exact replica of the space shuttle pointing skyward. Its owner, Bill Grillo, like so many other businesspeople here who've sunk their life savings into all-things-shuttle, is nervous.
"If the shuttle program were shut down tomorrow, I'd lose 60 percent of my business," he said. "We are definitely going to feel the pinch." He's invested heavily in Shuttle's, its sister restaurant of the same name a few miles down the road, and a nightclub -- called Space Station.
The establishment's walls are plastered with space memorabilia. Grillo has the autographed pictures of every U.S. astronaut who launched into space, many of whom have lunched here.
It's estimated up to 300,000 spectators turned out to watch, lining the beaches and swamps here in central Florida – nearly five times more than have turned out for previous launches.
Grillo says he feels confident of President Obama's plan to revitalize the Space Coast. "I believe NASA and the president will find a way to keep people here employed." The alternative, he said, is too desperate to think about.
A Matter of Money, and Love
That doesn't stop bartender Bobby Bremmer from doing it. "When the shuttle goes," he said, "it'll probably put a hole in my pocket. My mom, who works at the space center, is looking for a job already. My parents have already sold their home."
For some, like Conrad Nagel, the process flow manager for Atlantis for 13 years, this is isn't about business, but about love.
"I remember the day, 25 years ago, when Atlantis arrived. It was right out of the factory, it comes in here. And it is all shiny and new. If you can imagine a new car, and how excited you get about a new car, you can imagine how excited you get about a new spaceship."
Final Flights: Fear and Sadness in Florida as Space Shuttle Program Winds Down
For all those years, he prepared the shuttle for launch, combed over every inch of the 120-foot-long orbiter. "If you can imagine being around something that's dynamic for every day for that long, you get to know something very, very well."
It was his job to help ensure that the shuttle, an 18-wheeler of sorts for space, was safe enough to fly. "We made hundreds of changes… it is safer now than ever."
His eyes began to well up with tears as he spoke about all those missions past. "Saying goodbye is very emotional for me."
One of the reasons, for him, is that the orbiters, including Atlantis, were designed to be launched 100 times. Atlantis will be retired after mission number 32.
"To tell you the truth, there's much to say," said Nagel "I just have a prayer, Godspeed to you, Atlantis…."
At the Kennedy Space Center store nearby -- the Mecca of shuttle merchandise where you can find badges, stuffed bears in space suits, caps and shuttle replicas -- Jim and David Puente hauled an armful of merchandise to the counter.
"When we were young, my dad would fly out here from Chicago. We'd sit out along the road and camp to watch the shuttle go up at night or early morning like folks used to," said David. "So I dragged my brothers down here, because it's down to the last three."
He called it depressing that the shuttle program is slated for the scrap heap. "If they can find the money to go to war," he said, "they could find money to update the space program."
Much would change in these sleepy towns once the shuttle, the most complex machine ever built, is retired. But not the name of Shuttle's, Bill Grillo's bar.
"I will absolutely not change the name. It's been with the restaurant for 32 years," Grillo said, "long before I picked it up. It's always had great history and I hope it stays that way, long after I've sold it."
On launch days -- and even better, on days or nights that a shuttle launch is scrubbed -- the place has been crammed with patrons.