Florida's Space Coast looks for lift from shuttle

Mission: In a region where shuttle launches are `part of our culture,' a lot rides on the Discovery flight.

July 15, 2005|By John-Thor Dahlburg | John-Thor Dahlburg,LOS ANGELES TIMES

MERRITT ISLAND, Fla. - Grabbing a burger to go at Shuttles Bar & Grill near the Kennedy Space Center, Ken MacKay gave a quick rundown on how tense it has been waiting to get the space shuttles flying again.

"Every day you've got mixed emotions," said the 30-year-old electrical technician, who works at the space center. "It feels great to get another bird in the air. But, of course, there are also all those steps that have had to be taken to make everybody feel better about the launch."

Almost 2 1/2 years since the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated on re-entry, the people at Kennedy Space Center and the surrounding area, commonly called the Space Coast, are impatient to resume manned space flight.

If the shuttle Discovery is launched this month - its scheduled launch this week was postponed - it will mark a return to normality in a region so space-oriented that its area code is 321.

"Having shuttle launches is part of our culture, part of our nature," said Lynda Weatherman, president of the Space Coast Economic Development Commission. "We're ready for it, for people to come and see the orbiter in the air and know we're back in the game."

Kennedy Space Center and its aerospace contractors are the biggest economic engine on this stretch of central Florida's Atlantic coast, responsible for an estimated 14,500 jobs and $1.4 billion a year in business.

The space program is also a powerful tourist lure. For the scrubbed Discovery launch, an estimated 300,000 spectators - twice the average for a shuttle launch - clogged the roads.

NASA said yesterday that it will not make another attempt to launch Discovery until at least Sunday and said even that is a "really optimistic good-luck scenario."

Deputy shuttle program manager Wayne Hale said the space agency still probably faces several days of troubleshooting to figure out what caused the faulty fuel-gauge reading that led to the cancellation of Wednesday's planned launch.

If NASA can't send the shuttle and its seven astronauts to space on their 12-day mission by the end of the month, it must wait until September.

The Space Coast has had economic downturns before: the end of the Apollo program in the early 1970s and a moratorium on shuttle missions after the 1986 Challenger disaster.

These days, the local economy is more diversified, which has cushioned the effect of the freeze on launches since the Columbia disaster in 2003.

The space program itself has diversified, with more launches of civilian and military payloads atop conventional rockets.

Even if the Discovery mission is perfect, most people know the golden years of the shuttle program are over. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has set the program to end within five years.

The next generation of smaller, manned space vehicles is barely on the drawing boards and might not be operational until years after the shuttles are retired.

Some space workers are concerned about layoffs or other changes when the big orbital vehicles are phased out. What will follow the shuttle program is a question that looms large over the area.

"Everybody's wondering what's going to happen next," said Richard Eastes, a professor at the Florida Space Institute.

Shuttles Bar & Grill, a little more than two miles from the south entrance of Kennedy Space Center, is the closest spot to the space port for a beer and a burger.

It's a windowless, no-frills place that is as good a place as any to take the emotional temperature of the Space Coast.

"Right now it seems to me they're optimistic, but it seems to me there is also a real apprehension in case something goes wrong," said Kristina Miller, who has been manager of Shuttles for five years.

The bar and grill opened about the time of the first shuttle flights in the early 1980s. It once featured sandwiches named after Challenger and Columbia. On the outside wall by one of the entry doors are paintings of the mission patches from the two ill-fated shuttle flights.

Astronauts sometimes go to the bar to relax or for the parties that traditionally follow mission shakedown exercises.

Owner Kenneth Kalata, 55, a former moving-van driver, recalled that a shuttle astronaut once ordered a Reuben sandwich to go - to go into space, that is. (The order apparently never got filled.)

Shuttles, like the space program that provided its name and a fair proportion of its clientele, has had its ups and downs.

Jerry Woodcock, 67, a retired engineer and service representative for rocket guidance and navigation systems, said he went to Shuttles the day it opened 20 years ago. "I didn't like it," said Woodcock, who can now be found most afternoons perched at the east end of the bar, sipping beer on the rocks from a large pitcher.

The founder ran into financial trouble and left, Woodcock said. The mortgage holder sold it to another man, who wrote the menu still in use and renamed the place Shuttles to appeal to the space center set.

Kalata said he bought the place in 1988.

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