The successful launch of the Falcon 9 rocket Tuesday from Cape Canaveral may not have been a giant leap for mankind. But for the economically struggling Florida Space Coast, the blastoff marks one small step toward a rebirth of the region's aerospace industry. The Falcon 9, built by SpaceX, which was founded by PayPal founder Elon Musk, marks a new era in America's space program. SpaceX and other private-sector aerospace companies are now stepping in to fill the void between the end of NASA's space shuttle program and its next frontier.
The end of the shuttle program cost Florida as many as 9,000 jobs. Many of those were in Brevard County, where 25 percent of all jobs were tied to the Cape Canaveral complex. Enterprise Florida initiatives and Space Florida, which has been charged with investing in infrastructure and support programs to lure aerospace corporations, has attracted a Boeing Co. capsule assembly project to the region. And it is estimated that the $1 billion Falcon 9 project created about 550 Space Coast jobs. That's a good start.
In theory, the Falcon 9 mission to deliver supplies and eventually crew members to the International Space Station orbiting 250 miles above Earth will free NASA to focus on longer-term, more ambitious missions to the moon, asteroids, Mars and beyond. While other corporations around the country such as Sierra Nevada Corp., Bigelow Aerospace and Orbital Sciences Corp. are also developing shuttle vehicles, Cape Canaveral remains the primary launch facility. If they built it, they generally have to come to Florida to fly it.
The dawn of America's space program more than 50 years ago affirmed a national desire to take risks, explore and become the worldwide leader in technological research. But time and dwindling resources have cooled that ambition, and NASA faces an overhaul and a cloudy future. The economic engine on the Space Coast may be fueled more by private investment than by public tax dollars.
The successful launch of the Falcon 9, the little rocket that could, once again reminds us the reach of the heavens remains well within our grasp. But for now, let's see if this private spaceship can successfully link up with the space station on Friday and make it safely back to Earth.