July 15, 2024

Countdown for Shuttle, and for a Bit of the Florida Economy

“We may sell,” said Mr. Foley, 82, whose trinket-crammed NASA memorabilia shop is Florida’s oldest. “We just don’t want to give people the impression the store is giving up on the space program.”

“Oh, we’ll never sell the shop,” Mrs. Foley, who does not tell her age, playfully retorted. “He would just curl up and die without it.”

So go conversations up and down the Space Coast, where aeronautics are as culturally ingrained as sandy beaches and surfboard shops. Everyone feels the impact of the shuttle program’s ending after 30 years and 135 flights, and questions about the area’s future far outnumber answers.

Shuttles have launched here, on average, every three months since 1981 — a ritual that is expected to draw up to a million people on Friday at 11:26 a.m. when, weather permitting, the Atlantis is scheduled to take its final flight. (NASA says there is a 70 percent chance the launching will be delayed by rainy weather.)

The Kennedy Space Center employs 13,000 people, and many thousands more work for aerospace contractors. Then there are businesses like the Foleys’ — on the order of NASA-themed restaurants and surfboard shops that take spectators on the water to watch the launchings — that are bolstered by a regular tide of shuttle tourists. All of this in a county with 10.8 percent unemployment.

“The biggest focus economically is going to be keeping these talented, highly educated people in the area,” said Bill Moore, the chief operating officer of the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex. “We all have friends or husbands or brothers at the space center, and they’re looking for work.”

Space center contractors have already announced 7,000 layoffs this year. And local officials worry about declining tourism as baby boomers age and memories of the golden age of space travel fade.

Marsha Getkey, the president of the Chamber of Commerce in Titusville, a city where many space center workers live, said it felt a little like the closing of a town’s main factory. “When a shuttle launch happens, people here don’t just hear a rumble and look up,” she said. “You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t know the launch time and land time. It’s that much a part of the community’s fabric.”

That has created an atmosphere both nostalgic and celebratory around the space center, where visitors were already gathering Thursday to watch “Star Trek” movies, buy memorabilia and stake out viewing spots. Tickets to watch the launching from the best locations were selling for up to $1,200 online, as much as Super Bowl tickets.

“We’re here to watch history, but we’re also here to watch something become history,” said Steve Allen, 64, an engineer from Colorado Springs who brought his family of five, all outfitted in blue NASA shirts.

The space center is expecting its largest crowd for a launching, despite the rain. Many tourists said they had dreamed of attending a NASA launching since the cold war, and splurged on the last opportunity of this kind.

“I bought a one-way ticket from South Korea,” said Michael Kim, 57, an engineer. “If it rains, I will just wait. Saturday. Sunday. Monday. I’m staying put.”

Robert E. Hunter, a historian from Chicago, persuaded his wife, Nancy Grim Hunter, to attend what he called a “once-in-a-lifetime” event: a trip that cost each of them about $1,000, including travel, rental car and souvenirs.

“A lot of times America gets criticized for what it does in the world,” he said. “But you think about the space program. It’s something that doesn’t hurt anyone, isn’t imperialistic and is almost universally uplifting and inspiring.”

Carol Wyles, 70, a retired Lockheed Martin employee who lives near the center, has watched every launching since 1981. She has a routine — sitting in her backyard with her grandchildren and her Chihuahua, Mojo, and counting down from 10 to zero — that she will follow again.

“It’s going to look the same,” she said. “But the feelings are going to be so much different.”

Mr. Moore said that only 5 percent of those who toured the visitors complex came for shuttle launching. But he said the space center planned to create new attractions involving unmanned and private space travel.

“The NASA story is not clear right now. It’s still being written,” Mr. Moore said. “But even in this tumultuous time, it’s going to be an historic weekend.”

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=744acc6eeed43a69d746bbd3ea7597bc

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