Once in the Depression, the Florida coast was buzzing with space launches

A decade ago, Florida’s Space Coast was stagnant.

The space shuttle program had ended, and with it the steady stream of space enthusiasts who filled the area’s restaurants and hotel and motel rooms during regular astronaut launches.

The 7,400 laid-off Kennedy Space Center shuttle workers struggled to find work in their areas, and many left for other states. The county’s unemployment rate jumped to nearly 12 percent and foreclosures were widespread after the housing crisis hit Florida harder than most states. Miracle City Mall, a once-thriving shopping destination that had been around since the Apollo moon pictures in the 1960s, was abandoned in the mid-2010s, and other stores and restaurants closed.

“It was devastating. Along with the fact that our nation was going into recession, we had lost our bread and butter. We had lost our economy,” said Daniel Diesel, the mayor of Titusville, which is across the Indian River from the Kennedy Space Center.

These days, the county’s unemployment rate is under 3 percent, and the Space Coast is teeming with jobs and space launches. The first launch of NASA’s New Moon rocket on Saturday was expected to draw hundreds of thousands of visitors like Ed Meyal. He traveled more than 4,300 miles (about 6,920 kilometers) from London to witness the first, clean launch attempt on Monday.

“It’s just so exciting, the thought that I could go into space, potentially with all the commercial programs that are going on, it just makes you want to experience it,” Meyall said. “Like it’s exciting to be around.”

While most of the past six decades of space business in Florida has been orchestrated by NASA and the Air Force, this recent rejuvenation of the Space Coast has been driven over the past decade by private commercial companies like Space X and Blue Origin, founded by two of the richest people on the planet, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. There are already several launches per month along the Space Coast, with Space X launching its Starlink Internet satellites every few weeks.

Perhaps nothing better captured the return of the Space Coast than the first Space X astronaut liftoff in the spring of 2020, which put Florida’s Central Coast back in the business of launching humans into space and marked the first time a private company launched people into orbit. The effort drew hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world and ended NASA’s nine-year launch drought.

As of last year, Kennedy Space Center had more than 12,300 government employees, private contractors and other employees working at the spaceport, just a few thousand employees below the 15,000 workers during the heyday of the shuttle program.

New subdivisions have been permitted along the Space Coast, new hotels have been built, small manufacturing plants supporting the space industry are being built in industrial parks, and a glitzy outdoor shopping area has recently opened in the Miracle City Mall footprint. Last year, the Milken Institute ranked the Space Coast metro as the second-strongest economy in the U.S., using an index based on jobs, wages and high-tech growth. The metro’s ranking has risen by 47 positions compared to three years earlier.

In addition to the growth of commercial space companies, the Space Coast’s economy has diversified over the past decade beyond its traditional reliance on space to include defense contractors, cruise ships, auto parts manufacturing, and nature tourism.

“We’re growing from so many angles,” the mayor said. “Our economy thrives when the space program thrives. There’s just no question about it, but we also like to be able to say that we’re more diverse than we were before.”

He said he was a “space bro” and had been familiar with the boom-and-bust nature of the space business since his family moved to the Space Coast in 1965 so his father could take a job with the Apollo program. NASA budgets from the White House and Congress have greatly affected life on the Space Coast, he said.

Jessica Costa, owner of C’s Waffles restaurant in Titusville, remembers how quiet the Space Coast became after the space shuttle program ended. Now that there are rocket launches all the time, she doesn’t take them for granted.

“I’m just happy that it’s thriving the way it is,” Costa said. “I’m happy that they have now reinstated the program. I’m happy that people can come out and enjoy it with us.”

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