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Space Coast Waits for Political Will to Return Man to Space

October 4, 2012 - 6:00pm

There is a bittersweet feeling around the Kennedy Space Center and across the Space Coast as the space shuttle Atlantis is made ready to be rolled out for public display.

Hundreds of technicians and support crew who have spent decades preparing each orbiter for flight will also be mothballed in two upcoming rounds of layoffs in early December and just after the new year.

Its just the latest of the 8,000 shuttle workers laid off from Floridas KSC after the NASA shuttle program was ended and the gap widens before the Space Launch System advances.

We have a saying here: Dont be sad because its over, be glad you were a part of it,' said shuttle systems technician David Bakehorn, while giving a tour of Atlantis earlier this week.

Others, told prior to the tour to limit discussion to the craft, were more gloomy in their outlook, noting they will have about six months of severance pay while competing against younger workers for lower level jobs.

Its not good. Just drive down the streets and see the empty homes and stores, said one technician who didnt want his name used.

Many industry experts have complained that Space Launch System, a rocket built from space shuttle-derived pieces, doesnt appear to have any specific mission other than to keep jobs going in various states, including Florida.

Because of the lack of long-range focus, U.S. Rep. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge, has joined a call to reduce turnover in leadership, to remove politics as projects are moved from start to finish by restructuring NASA into a more independent agency. The idea is for the top administrator to be appointed for a 10-year run.

But even with the new program, the jobs wont be coming until the SLS moves beyond testing.The first unmanned flight is currently set for 2017, with manned launches two years later.

Many at the Cape are approaching retirement age, though not ready to do so. But as the Cape awaits the federal government proceeding with the SLS, such specialized employment isnt readily available.

They see the same gap approaching as the period between Apollo and the state of the shuttle program in the 19'70s, when they were the young guns taking over.

Nor are jobs available that could ease the transition from their careers to retirement, such as cutting grass around the airport, with unemployment hovering at 9.4 percent in Brevard County, 9.1 to the north in Volusia County and 11.9 percent to the south in Indian River County.

The unemployment numbers have improved since the bulk of the layoffs occurred last year, when Brevard County topped 11 percent.

A survey by Brevard Workforce conducted earlier this year found that 57 percent of those initially let go have found work, with 3 of 4 workers being able to remain in Florida.

Atlantis, which flew 33 missions and traveled nearly 126 million miles, will be put on display, hovering over onlookers at a new, sprawling 90,000-square-foot portion of the KSC Visitors Complex. The view, suspended in air, with the payload bay open, is to give an appearance of how the craft appeared in space.

The public will get to see the shuttle rolled its final 9.8 miles of travel to its new home on Nov. 2.

The U.S. Air Force will take over the massive Vehicle Assembly Building that has housed the shuttles as they have been prepared for flight. The bays are expected to be used for the hush-hush mini-shuttles, the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle.

The 37B offers hope for the Space Coast as the Air Force has suggested it may move operations to KSC or Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, according to Florida Today.

It was not immediately clear how many jobs might be brought to the Space Coast if the Air Force consolidates X-37B operations here, Florida Today reported. But such a move would almost certainly add dozens, if not hundreds, of civil service and contractor jobs that would help fuel a next-generation economic engine on Floridas Space Coast.

For technicians who worked on the commercial orbiters, there will be no transition into the militarys program.

Thats why groups such as Space Coast Technical Network have grown into nonprofit corporations.

Our job is to go out of business, essentially, Kevin Harrington, a former shuttle manager and the groups acting spokesman, recently told CNN.He added the network's other goal is to find everyone employment or entrepreneurial opportunities.

Last month the Economic Development Commission of Floridas Space Coast announced it had developed a $10 million incentive fund with the assistance of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity -- to help existing high-tech and manufacturing businesses attract new aerospace, aviation, defense and emerging technology businesses to the Space Coast.

The incentive program is designed to be the final push that influences a companys decision to locate or expand in Brevard County, further diversifying our economy and moving the Space Coast beyond the shuttle era, said Floridas Space Coast EDC President Lynda Weatherman.

The state has also been working to keep Florida at the forefront of the aerospace field by attracting more private firms, such as Internet entrepreneur Elon Musks SpaceX, to the Sunshine State.

Florida has also recently asked NASA for 150 acres of land north of the shuttle launch pads for Space Florida, the state's aerospace development agency, to run as a commercial space port.

Reach Jim Turner at or at (772) 215-9889.

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