End of the space shuttle programme spells disaster for local economy

When the space shuttle Atlantis returns to Earth, 2,000 Kennedy Space Centre employees will be laid off, bringing job losses from the shuttle programme close to 10,000

As landlord of the nearest pub to the Kennedy Space Centre, Bill Grillo is proud of his highbrow crowd of regulars.

For three decades, astronauts, rocket scientists, engineers, technicians and mission managers have kept the till at Shuttles sports bar and grill ringing. Every American who has blasted into space from a nearby launchpad has taken a meal there, and had his or her framed picture placed prominently on a wall.

But all that will change this month when the time bell rings for Nasa's iconic space shuttle programme.

If the Florida weather permits, on Friday, for the 135th and final time in a 30-year era punctuated by many extraordinary highs and two infamous disasters, an orbiter will launch into the heavens from the nation's spaceport at Cape Canaveral.

When Atlantis returns to Earth 12 days later, another 2,000 Kennedy Space Centre employees will be laid off, bringing job losses from the shuttle programme close to 10,000.

For Grillo and many other business owners in the corner of Florida known as the Space Coast, it spells economic disaster as many disappear for pastures new. Meanwhile, deprived of its own manned spaceflight programme for the first time in its 53-year history, the nation's space agency struggles to find an identity.

"We have already lost 50% of our revenue," said Grillo, whose bar on Merritt Island is decorated with an impressive collection of shuttle photographs and memorabilia.

"Shuttles is an institution. It's been the hangout for workers, the place they all come. Now there are black clouds over our heads."

Business has slumped so badly that Grillo has already had to lay off two thirds of his 25 staff, among them his own 26-year-old son, Billy Junior, a manager and part-time bartender. A skeleton staff of eight keeps the place running, serving Apollo and Endeavour burgers to dwindling numbers of customers, and the landlord believes things could get worse.

"We'll do anything we can to keep it open and keep the history alive," Grillo said. "Around here, the space business is in our veins: it's what we know, it's what we do."

A short drive around neighbouring Cape Canaveral, Cocoa Beach, Titusville and Rockledge illustrates what Grillo means. Everywhere there are images of space shuttles and rockets, on businesses, hotels, homes and schools. Roads are named after veteran astronauts and even the area's telephone dialling code, 321, reflects the final seconds of the countdown to a launch.

As the programme winds down, there is tremendous pride among locals about the achievements of the world's first reusable spaceship, not least placing the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit and completing the construction of the International Space Station, despite the Challenger and Columbia disasters of 1986 and 2003 that claimed the lives of 14 astronauts.

Alongside that recognition of the region's place in history, however, comes the acceptance that, for the second time in 40 years, the local economy has taken a battering from a presidential decision to end the country's flagship space programme.

Similar numbers lost their jobs at Kennedy, and tens of thousands more nationally, when Richard Nixon pulled the plug on the Apollo moon missions in the 1970s, ironically to free up funding for space shuttle development.

But unlike the end of Apollo, Nasa has no follow-on project to soak up some of those made redundant. Barack Obama scrapped the next-generation Constellation programme – his predecessor George W Bush's grand vision to return astronauts to the moon by 2020 – on cost grounds. The decision to scrap the shuttle means that after Atlantis is grounded later this month American astronauts will have to hitch a ride to the space station from Kazakhstan aboard Russia's Soyuz spacecraft – at least until private sector companies such as SpaceX are deemed ready to ferry humans into low Earth orbit by about 2015.

Meanwhile, Nasa has been given a largely vague brief to design, but not yet build, some kind of heavy lift rocket, for a specific purpose and destination that has yet to be determined. The decision riles many former astronauts, among them Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon and one of several distinguished signatories on a letter to Charles Bolden, Nasa administrator, and President Obama last week lamenting the end of the shuttle era and the fact that there's no replacement in sight.

Community leaders here, therefore, are pinning their hopes for job creation in the short term on the expansion of the private space industry, while lobbying the government to make a strong longer-term commitment to Nasa.

"Our challenge is to make sure we play a role in maintaining our country's number one position in space," said Robin Fisher, a commissioner for Brevard County, which includes the space centre and surrounding towns from which its workers are drawn.

"Can we get Washington to stop playing games and accept the fact that we need this heavy lift rocket? We need to know where we are going and we need to make this decision really quick. Do we want to lose that brain power and talent?"

Such a "brain drain" is exactly what politicians such as Fisher are keen to avoid. Those with longer memories recall departing Apollo workers packing up belongings in their cars and driving off, leaving house keys in their mail boxes because they were unable to sell their near-worthless properties in the depression that followed the lay-offs.

Brevard Workforce, a non-governmental organisation that helps those seeking employment, has operated an aerospace transition programme for months, funded in part by Nasa, offering job fairs and other resources to space centre workers. The Space Coast has a burgeoning aviation and private aerospace industry, and some of the major players, such as Lockheed Martin and Embraer, are still hiring.

"This is not a catastrophe, it's not like it was when Apollo ended," said Jim Tulley, mayor of Titusville. "In those days the county population was about half the size and the space centre population was about double. Of course that's easy for me to say. If you're the guy who lost his job and needs a job, it's just as traumatic for him as it was 40 years ago, but the overall impact will be less."

Even so, uncertainty remains. The Brevard County school district, for example, expects 713 fewer pupils for the next school year, from a total intake of just over 72,000, but communications director Christine Davis admits that figure is largely guesswork.

"We have families with one parent losing their job, but they'll stay because the other is working," she said. "Others may stay because they have no job to go to. It's really a great unknown to be seen only when the space shuttle does end."

As for its legacy, the shuttle has, perhaps more so than the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecraft that preceded it, come to define an entire region. Locals see it as fitting that Atlantis, the last of the fleet to fly, will be on display at Kennedy's visitor centre once she has been decommissioned.

"The shuttle was synonymous with this area for three decades and everyone by and large will miss the programme when it's gone," said Bob Springer, a retired astronaut who flew two missions aboard Discovery and Atlantis and who lives in Rockledge, just miles from the space centre.

"I'm not sure the public really appreciates that. They see the government investing in private space enterprise, but will people feel the same kind of pride that company A, B or C is the one launching, not America's space programme, with none of the history? I doubt it."


Richard Luscombe, Cape Canaveral

The GuardianTramp

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