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Florida space jobs: How do we keep that expertise in state as NASA throttles back?

Wake up and good morning. Today's launch from Florida's Space Coast for the space shuttle Endeavor sure is attracting a large tourist crowd -- including President Barack Obama and family -- but also raising fears for this area's economic future. This will be the next-to-last launch for the program.

As this AP story reports, the Space Coast is still reeling from Florida's housing slump, NASA contractors already have laid-off thousands of workers and the unemployment rate is over 11 percent. Empty storefronts dot some shopping malls and vacant condos are common along the beach. Shuttle launches usually generate about $5 million in economic activity for the Space Coast. Given the huge crowds expected, the Endeavour launch could generate more than $15 million, said Rob Varley, the area's top tourism official.

Cape Canaveral stands to lose 7,000 to 8,000 jobs in the next year because of the shuttle program ending, Bretton Alexander, the president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, a Washington-based trade association of companies promoting commercial human spaceflight, told Bloomberg News. Obama and Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat who in 1986 flew one shuttle mission as a payload specialist, "are taking a lot of heat for that, but that was going to happen no matter what," he said.

In a state long lampooned for its relative lack of engineers, scientists and technicians, here is its greatest concentration and here is where those jobs are being lost in earnest.

This Wall Street Journal article notes that economic-development officials are keen to lure new aerospace-related businesses, and there have been successes: Commercial launch company SpaceX and Brazilian aircraft maker Embraer SA are among those hiring.

And while Florida's never been much of a player in the automotive world, one upstart business thinks it can tap local technical expertise. The Journal story looks at Rivian Automotive (known until recently as Avera Motors) that hopes its "sleek, 60 miles-per-gallon sports car" (that's it above, though Rivian's web site won't show it off yet) it is developing with help from NASA engineers will eventually deliver 1,200 jobs along Florida's Space Coast.

Frank DiBello, by the way, who heads the state's economic-development agency Space Florida charged with finding new jobs for NASA workers, speaks this morning at the Tampa Convention Center at the Tampa Bay Partnership's Super Regional Leadership Conference. So does Sen. Nelson.

How do you save that gem of concentrated expertise that was Florida's space industry? What a herculean task at best. Let's hope this Rivian auto effort is a good start and does not suffer the same fate as the "Tucker."

-- Robert Trigaux, Business Columnist, St. Petersburg Times