The buttons on the console boxes light up – red, yellow, green. Then the room goes dark, and a monitor shows a rocket – 3, 2, 1. Footage of a launch from the shuttle era plays on the screen at the American Space Museum in Titusville.
A picture of the console room also sits in the middle of the exhibit. Over two dozen people stand shoulder to shoulder, looking up at the same monitor. No one is smoking, though they used to during countdown, before it was considered a distraction.
Outside, two model rockets stand by the doorway, reminders of the Apollo era. A replica of the spacesuit worn in the 1960s and ’70s is displayed near the patches for sale, one for each Apollo mission, an Orion flight test and the 50th anniversary of the moon landing.
Compared to the Kennedy Space Center, the place attracts a modest crowd. Leroy Kullman thinks Titusville – a little northwest of Cocoa Beach and Cape Canaveral – looks nearly the same as it did after the Apollo program ended in 1975.
“It’s kind of desolate. It’s not humming,” said Kullman, who once worked on the lunar module.
Titusville may be best defined by glory days, but the region has seen its fortunes rally. The satellite business is booming, and private companies are stepping in where NASA stepped back. It’s too soon yet, but someday, they hope to send astronauts into space from the same launchpads that propelled men toward the moon. Someday, they want to bring back not just the money but the magic.
John Tribe moved to Florida in 1961 from England, to work on the Apollo program. Bathrooms and water fountains were segregated, and Cocoa Beach had one store, a post office, a doctor and unpaved side roads.
Then came an influx of young and enthusiastic people, who were starting families and whose kids would grow up together. Demand for housing exceeded supply by so much that properties would be claimed long before they could be listed in the classifieds. Those new to town often slept in their cars.
Work days could be so long that Tribe didn’t see his children, but the work was fun and everything they did was making headlines. Tribe’s team worked on the propulsion systems on the Apollo command and service modules, the units that would ferry astronauts back to Earth.
Kullman worked on the lunar module at the 300-foot level – where the rocket narrows into a cone. Instructions came in through headsets from three miles away. Their call sign was “FM-ONE” for fluid mechanics. Sometimes, they wore breathing packs and suits to protect them from the fuels, and they felt like astronauts.
The team entered through the back entrance of the Kennedy Space Center, where a sign read: “Gateway to the Moon.”
“We knew it would be the most storied event of the century,” Kullman said.
He remembers several launches from the VIP stand as a part of the emergency crew. Birds flew out of the shrubbery as the sound of thrust ricocheted off the Vehicle Assembly Building.
The path to the cosmos could only be here, in Florida, due to a perfect set of geographic elements. The rockets could launch over the ocean, away from populated areas, and get a boost from the Earth’s spin on the East Coast near the equator.
When Apollo ended in 1975, the effect was immediate. Two weeks later, Tribe had to layoff half his employees. Coworkers were offering their houses up to anyone who’d cover the mortgage payments. His company, Rockwell International, went from a workforce of over 2,000 to one of around 95 people.
The shuttle program, which launched in 1972 and later flew astronauts to the International Space Station, eventually employed around 15,000 people, half of what Apollo had.
By 1980, Tribe’s company was back up to over 2,000, and the work was no longer done exclusively by white men. As the machinery switched from analog to digital, it was women, Tribe said, who taught old-timers how to code and program.
By that point, tourism - not space - was coming to define Florida.
Theme parks had sprung up in the ’70s and beaches made the Sunshine State a popular vacation destination.
Shuttle launches became regular – and mostly uneventful – over 30 years, though the Challenger and Columbia explosions served as reminders of the dangers of space travel. The shuttle program ended in 2011, after 135 flights.
Since then, the U.S. has relied on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft to transport astronauts to the space station. The price today: $80 million a seat.
With the shuttles sidelined, about 8,000 workers with security clearances lost their jobs. But in the aftermath of the recession, companies didn’t have the capacity to expand.
Today, the area’s economic health no longer depends on NASA and the Department of Defense.
The recovery is nothing short of miraculous to Lynda Weatherman, president of the Space Coast Economic Development Commission. The unemployment rate went from over 11%, in 2010, to 3.5% in only eight years. That kind of rebound, she said, normally takes a generation.
It was fueled by businesses that make rockets and planes and submarine missiles.
“This community remembers the Apollo days, and they weren’t going to let it go,” she said.
The recovery also was powered by tourists, who now pay a third of the region’s sales tax. More hotel rooms are built every year and already, almost every major cruise line has a stop at Port Canaveral and more are coming, according to Peter Cranis, executive director of the office of Space Coast tourism.
Tribe, the British engineer, remembers when the tallest building on the coast was a four-story hotel. Now, condominiums line the water.
“It’s far more tourist town than space town,” he said.
There are more launches than ever, though. The Cape Canaveral Air Force Station is expecting 32 launches this year and hopes to eventually raise that number to 48 – almost one every week. In the shuttle era, there would be a half dozen a year at best.
But they’re sending satellites – some as small as a bowling ball and others as large as a bus – up to space, not astronauts.
People still visit to watch rockets take off, but Cranis is holding his breath for the crowds when manned launches return.
Until then, some of the marketing posters his office circulates make no promises about what might come. One shows an astronaut holding a surfboard on the beach.
Today, when people talk about the future of space exploration, the names that have replaced Armstrong and Aldrin are Musk and Bezos. The tech billionaires are in a new space race, said Dale Ketcham, a spokesman for Space Florida, one pitting the coolest man in the world against the richest man in the world.
“These two guys in the commercial world have brought a new energy and enthusiasm, and you can feel it. You can sense it,” said Lee Solid, a founding member of the American Space Museum.
They’ve brought unprecedented pace to building, testing and launching. And there’s innovation, like reusing the boosters that thrust satellites and spacecrafts into the sky.
Elon Musk wants to establish a human colony on Mars with SpaceX, which currently leases three launch complexes at Cape Canaveral, including the storied one that sent Apollo 11 skyward.
Jeff Bezos’ dreams for Blue Origin – which has a facility near the Kennedy Space Center and also leases several launch pads – go back to his high school days in Miami. In his graduation speech, he said a “final objective is to get all people off the earth and see it turned into a huge national park.”
“It is time for America to return to the moon — this time to stay,” he told The Washington Post two years ago.
And those aren’t the only companies on the Space Coast with extraterrestrial visions. OneWeb wants to launch satellites to provide internet access across the globe, from Alaska to Third-World countries. Boeing and SpaceX are racing to become the first commercial company to transport Americans to the space station.
Nearby, NASA is working through tests on its Orion spacecraft, which might one day take astronauts to an outpost orbiting the moon.
NASA had been aiming to return humans to the moon by 2028, but this year, Vice President Mike Pence announced a new goal: 2024.
The White House also has proposed a new branch of the military: the space force. President Donald Trump speaks of defending communications capabilities and worries that foreign adversaries have started to weaponize space.
“It is not enough to merely have an American presence in space,” he said. “We must have American dominance in space.”
There’s no telling if political support will fade. And space remains an expensive business, so there’s no guarantee how quickly or whether the companies will achieve their goals.
But along the Space Coast, the sparks are there. And if humans find a way into the unknown beyond Earth, or back to a familiar place, they’ll likely liftoff from Cape Canaveral, where a new generation of engineers and spectators will get to watch.
Times reporter Chris O’Donnell contributed to this story.
Contact Amanda Zhou at email@example.com. Follow @AmondoZhou.