As NASA’s space shuttle program comes closer to its long-scheduled termination later this year, concern is growing in Florida and around the country about the future of the massive workforce currently employed both directly and indirectly by the program.
Brevard County — the central Florida home of the Kennedy Space Center, the famous Cape Canaveral launchpad and ten of thousands of highly trained and specialized aerospace workers — is bracing itself for the worst. Many fear the impending end of the shuttle program will bring about a repeat of the economic devastation of 1975, when NASA abruptly cancelled the Apollo program; everything from rocket science to real estate was impacted, practically overnight.Some analysts in Brevard County, however, believe the area is better prepared than it was 35 years ago. “I think, basically, the job losses won’t be as large in sheer number and they won’t be as dramatic in terms of abruptness,” says Dale Ketcham, director of NASA’s Spaceport Research & Technology Institute. “The local community is also substantially larger and more diversified to absorb that kind of a blow.”
These sentiments are echoed in a statement provided to TPM by Dina Reider-Hicks, the communications director for the Economic Development Commission of Florida’s Space Coast, one of a handful of organizations that has popped in Brevard over the past decade to help ease the coming transition. “When the Apollo program ended in 1975, 10,000 people left the area out of a population of 230,000,” the document says. “Now at 536,000, today’s population has more than doubled since then and Brevard is less dependent on space center jobs than it was during the Apollo era, when one person in 10 worked at the space center. While today’s transition is definitely challenging, the focus on diversifying the economy over the past 35 years will serve to mitigate the impact.”
According to Ketcham, the end of the shuttle program leaves Brevard County in a unique position to court further private aerospace opportunities. “We have a colossal work force, thousands and thousands of people who are highly skilled in advanced processes, understand detail, and they all have security clearance,” he says. That just might be what it takes to attract further private investment in the area, Ketcham believes. “The first thing anybody’s looking for when they relocate is a good workforce. Over and above taxes and lifestyle and all that other crap, it’s whether or not the workforce is there that can do the job. And we’ve got that.”
Currently, the final funded and approved shuttle mission is scheduled to launch in April. While Brevard County may stave off an Apollo-like disaster, the end of the program is still going to be painful. “It’s a little like comparing the Great Depression to the [current] Great Recession,” Ketcham says. “It’s not as bad, but it still really sucks.”