For Full Story: Orlando Sentinel

Article By: Chabeli Herrera

 

Florida Spaceport
Florida Spaceport, SpaceX

“We’ve never been busier,” said Brenda Mulberry, president of Merritt Island’s Space Shirts. The store has more than doubled its business since the shuttle program formally ended seven years ago Friday.

The 30-year program’s closure signaled the loss of about 9,000 direct jobs and thousands more indirect ones in Brevard County. Worsened by the economic recession, unemployment in Brevard bottomed out at 11.8 percent in 2010. Some people even thought Kennedy Space Center had closed.

To survive, KSC moved from just a launch site to a place where spacecraft could be assembled, including the next-generation deep space exploration vehicle Orion, which is nearly complete. The region’s economy diversified to welcome suppliers and manufacturers. Brazilian aerospace giant Embraer created nearly 1,000 jobs and aerospace and defense company Northrop Grumman Corp. added about 3,000.

And then came the high-profile private space companies.

Tesla founder Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezo’s Blue Origin set up camp on the Space Coast, bringing with them a new, 330-job rocket factory for Blue Origin, opening in February, and the promise of crewed flights from SpaceX as early as April — the first from American soil since the shuttle program shut down.

By July 2018, unemployment in Brevard had fallen to 3.9 percent. And by August, the Space Coast Economic Development Commission said the Cape had created 8,718 mostly space-relatedjobs since October 2010, when unemployment rates were at their highest.

Space Shirts now sells T-shirts to private space companies — not just NASA. On a recent afternoon, a navy blue Tesla was parked next to a space reserved as “astronaut parking.”

And next door at Shuttles Restaurant and Bar, a place famous for hosting astronauts and NASA engineers, the clientele has changed, too.

Asked if he now sees workers from the nearby Blue Origin rocket factory, night manager Rick Stine simply replied, “Oh, they’re our lunch crowd now.”

The first sign of a turnaround came with the “surprising success of SpaceX,” said Dale Ketcham, vice president of government and external relations at the state’s spaceport authority, Space Florida.

“To see a young, brash guy doing what Elon did and succeeding at it, and coming in at a price point that made the industry very anxiety-ridden, that sort of let people know that they hadn’t lost the Cape,” he said.

Then, when Blue Origin announced in 2015 it would build its New Glenn rocket at a 750,000-square-foot facility at Kennedy Space Center, the comeback was in full swing. Other companies, including satellite company OneWeb and supplier RUAG Space USA, also announced plans to move to the Cape.