Professor Vince Burns takes a long sip from his 7-Eleven Big Gulp and faces his class. ¶ Burns is one hour into a four-hour evening session on inspecting circuit boards. Four of the six students in his Brevard Community College classroom are eager to beef up their resumes after getting laid off from United Space Alliance, the NASA contractor that manages the space shuttle program. ¶ Don't worry if circuit boards you examine have a little extra soldering, Burns tells the group. Only worry about meeting commercial specifications, not more stringent NASA specs. ¶ "Remember," he says, "we're not working at NASA anymore."
It may be the toughest lesson these students have to grasp.
This is, after all, the Space Coast, a region whose pride and identity has been linked to space exploration ever since the federal government began buying 212 square miles filled with citrus groves in 1962 to create what became the Kennedy Space Center.
The phaseout of the space shuttle this summer means more than the loss of at least 7,000 space-related jobs, more than a massive economic ripple hitting everything from restaurants to retailers, schools to scuba diving companies.
It means the Space Coast has to chart a new, broader identity.
For members of Burns' class, the future could lie in electronics. Elsewhere, hundreds of former space shuttle workers are turning to the airline industry, with companies like Embraer coming to Melbourne to build executive jets. For others, the brightest job options are in teaching or the defense industry or research and development, particularly related to clean energy.
And the region is still clutching to a Space Coast-light identity with a small but growing cluster of jobs connected to commercial space exploration through companies such as California-based SpaceX, which secured government contracts to launch payloads to the International Space Station.
Economic development leaders envision glory days returning someday with the region a national focal point not just for launching rockets but building commercial satellites, developing defense radar systems and dissecting the scientific riches discovered in space.
Frank DiBello, president of Space Florida, is sticking with the goal he set in late 2009 when he was tapped to run the state-created economic development arm for aerospace — namely, tripling Florida's aerospace industry within 10 years.
"Absolutely … it will happen," he said. "There will be a major next-generation space program, and Florida will play a key role."
But nobody is fooling themselves that the transition will be easy. More pain lies ahead as about 2,300 more space-related jobs disappear in July alone.
"I don't want you to feel for a minute that we're in any way underestimating this challenge," said Lynda Weatherman, president and CEO of the Economic Development Commission of Florida's Space Coast. "We're in for a tough three years."
The challenge is keeping the talent cluster tethered to the area as the economy recovers and a new technological base of higher-paying jobs takes root.
Susan Hamed, proprietor of the Moonlight Drive-In Restaurant in Titusville, fears it may be too late already. She's seen many longtime customers move away, some of whom just abandoned their suburban homes. At the Moonlight, a '50s-style diner with Beatles posters on the walls and Don McLean crooning "Bye, bye, Miss American pie" in the background, Hamed has cut back to two employees during the day shift and two at night. Tips continue to shrink.
"We have a lot of elderly here still, but we're losing our middle class," Hamed said, "and I expect it to get worse."
The Palm Bay-Melbourne-Titusville economy is quickly morphing into one of the hardest-hit slices of hard-hit Florida.
Year-over-year, the region has lost a net 6,800 jobs. That's not only more than any of the 21 other metro areas statewide, but stands in sharp contrast to a more positive trend: More than half the metros in Florida are now gaining jobs compared to a year ago. The coast might have absorbed the blow better had the shuttle shutdown not happened on the heels of the deepest and longest recession since the Great Depression.
Retailers already are in dire straits. Along a 20-mile stretch of U.S. 1 through the heart of the Space Coast, vacancies dominate some strip malls. Darkened windows can't hide the etchings of stores-gone-by: a pizza place, a karate school, a car shop. In a note taped to the front of his shuttered store, Cocoa Kayaks owner Dale Fraza said he was leaving with "great sadness" and thanked customers for the last seven years.
Fraza said he was forced two months ago to close his once-thriving business. "It's all related to the space program. They keep laying people off, and it's getting worse and worse and worse."
Russ Adams, owner of a computer repair shop in Rockledge called Ingenious Technology, has lost 75 percent of his business over the past couple of years and worries about the next round of layoffs. "I think the Space Coast is really going to take a beating," he said.
Five miles north in North Cocoa, sisters Gina Gandolfi and Terri Burgess lament the hit on the family-run company started by their dad, Al's Trophy Shop, which supplies trophies for sports teams, end-of-the-year school awards and science contests.
To survive the recession, the sisters laid off two workers, froze salaries for five years, eliminated dental insurance and hiked health insurance deductibles. What will happen, they wonder, when schools cut budgets and small businesses can no longer afford to subsidize youth sports leagues and buy their trophies?
"If they start closing schools down, we're going to lose their business," Gandolfi said.
The region's unemployment rate in May was 10.8 percent. That's only slightly higher than the state average of 10.6 percent, but the gap is expected to widen.
At least 1,900 more United Space Alliance workers are getting pink slips July 22 in the single biggest layoff to date. That will leave about 1,300 alliance employees, many of whom will be phased out over the next 12 to 14 months as the program retires the shuttle orbiter, sells equipment and tries to lease much of its vacant space to private contractors.
By September 2012, the alliance expects to have fewer than 250 workers left, most of them assigned to the Orion project, NASA's next-generation crew exploration vehicle.
Inside Kennedy Space Center, Patty Stratton is at ground central of both the worker upheaval and mission overhaul. As manager of ground operations for the space alliance, Stratton oversees about 75 percent of the alliance workers at Kennedy Space Center, including most of those being laid off.
Over the past couple of years, Stratton's team has held two national job fairs and multiple smaller sessions while offering one-on-one help with resume writing and career planning. The group has brought in insurance company representatives and investment experts to dole out advice, and held off-site seminars so spouses could attend.
"We've done everything but the interview," Stratton joked. "They're ready. They're prepared."
So far, she acknowledges, most job opportunities have surfaced outside the Space Coast. Hundreds have found work in places like Texas, Nebraska and Washington state. Plenty are heading overseas, Stratton said.
All of this is stirring fears of a "brain drain" of talent exiting Florida.
"Oh yeah, absolutely we're concerned about that," said Lisa Rice, president of Brevard Workforce, part of a statewide network charged with retraining and finding new jobs for displaced workers.
Not only are ex-workers leaving town, there's also concern that thousands will either retire early or be considered too old to get hired again for similar industry jobs. A Brevard Workforce analysis last year found that 78 percent of the space-related workers were 41 or older; more than a third were 51 or older.
Space Florida's DiBello isn't worried. Even if a third of the space shuttle workers leave the labor pool or retire early, there will still be thousands of skilled workers who want to stay. He projects the space-trained work force in the region will fall from a high of 15,000 to just under 10,000.
Some of them may temporarily work elsewhere, flying to Alabama or Texas for work during the week and returning to their families on weekends. As tech jobs and space jobs come back, however, they'll still be here as potential hires, DiBello predicts.
"These people have homes and have families embedded in the coast, and they aren't anxious to uproot," he said.
"We're really trying to do what it takes to keep the breadth of skills we need, (but) we're not going to have the depth we've had," adds Stratton.
Prepared this time
Inside a conference room at the Economic Development Commission of Florida's Space Coast, an oversized regional map on the wall is emblazoned with "Your Future is here."
The commission's mission is to figure out how to simultaneously keep that core of skilled workers here and attract businesses to hire them.
EDC president Lynda Weatherman has been preparing for this moment for more than six years, ever since then-President Bush canceled any additional expenditure of federal funds on the space shuttle.
Lousy economy aside, she feels the area is much better off this time than when the Apollo lunar program ended in the early 1970s, temporarily crippling the Space Coast economy. So much of the community was tied to Apollo that its shutdown turned Titusville into a ghost town. Nowadays, the entire region has a much wider range of jobs to fall back on and build on — medical, cyber security, aircraft electronics, clean hydrogen production and solar energy jobs.
The roster of area companies includes international communications firm Harris Corp., General Electric Transportation, aircraft and electronics contractor Northrop Grumman, defense contractor DRS Technologies and aircraft electronics supplier Rockwell Collins. Homegrown success stories include fingerprint sensor maker AuthenTec, satellite communications firm Satcom Direct and Relm Wireless, a maker of two-way radios.
"We have a much more diversified economy than in the '70s, There is a chapter two," Weatherman said. "We will not sit idly by and just be a launch site."
Here success hinges on a pair of factors:
• Convincing the federal government to continue investing in Florida. Beyond the Orion project, for example, Florida has submitted a bid to manage the national laboratory portion of the International Space Station's research lab.
• Convincing private aerospace companies to invest more in their Florida operations — companies like Space Exploration Technologies, a.k.a. SpaceX.
The CEO and driving force behind SpaceX, Elon Musk, may be best known as the co-founder of PayPal. But if Musk's ambitions are fulfilled, his accomplishments in outer space could dwarf those in cyberspace. Based in Hawthorne, Calif., SpaceX aims to send astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Musk has said that eventually he wants to play a role in much grander manned missions exploring space, perhaps colonizing Mars.
In a major first step, NASA awarded SpaceX a $1.6 billion contract to send cargo to the space station. Most of those cargo-carrying missions will be launched via SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, just south of the Kennedy Space Center. By 2015, the company projects it will have up to 400 employees in Florida alone.
For its part, SpaceX has no plans to use Florida for anything beyond a launch site, with its manufacturing and research remaining in California. That contrasts with a push by Weatherman and others to get involved more directly in building rockets and developing technologies here.
So where will the Space Coast be in five to 10 years?
On this point, leaders in the private and public sectors tend to speak with one voice. They talk of a region known nationally as a hub for its aero engineering, electronics and tech prowess, a place that will still have a solid space component (albeit less space-oriented than before).
They talk fondly about the enduring pride and patriotism of space workers, about the stirring images of a rocket plume viewable from the beaches and the familiar rumbling at launch time.
"I think it always will be that you launch rockets from Kennedy Space Center," Stratton says. "I think that will always be there."
Jeff Harrington can be reached at (727) 893-8242 or firstname.lastname@example.org.