As the space shuttle touched down from its final mission in 2011, Gerry Mulberry hoped a rebound was around the corner.
"This area got hit bad,” said Mulberry, a former shuttle engineer. He said he remembers thinking at the time "you know, maybe over the long run it will turn out ok."
Mulberry was one of roughly 8,000 NASA and civilian employees laid off in 2011 when NASA ended the shuttle program, the United States' fourth human spaceflight program that employed a significant percentage of Florida's space coast workforce.
“With shuttle, we had the dual whammies. The bad economy kicked in at the same time,” said Jim Tully, a 24-year veteran engineer of the shuttle program and mayor of Titusville from 2008 to 2016.
Tully was at the helm of the city when a large portion of its 46,000 residents worked on the other side of the Indian River, at Kennedy Space Center.
“I was the mayor during the worst of it,” Tully said.
"The shuttlewas a very labor-intensive operationit took thousandsof people"
In the Apollo days they had even more people out there, and when that program ended... there were just an amazing number of layoffs and the housing market just completely collapsed."
“You would’ve thought that we would’ve learned our lesson locally from that incident, but we didn’t,” reflected Tully, alluding to when President Richard Nixon ended the Apollo program in 1972 after putting 12 U.S. astronauts on the moon.
The 2011 exodus mainly fell into two sets. Older employees, most of whom decided to retire, and their younger counterparts who sought work in other states. "So we had a lot of people leave town,” Tully said.
In 2014, optimism in Brevard rose as budding private companies broke new ground and promised an infusion of aerospace jobs, attracting a much younger workforce. President Barack Obama had prioritized private spaceflight since cancelling the Constellation Program, and by 2015, SpaceX had delivered its fifth cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station from Cape Canaveral.
“It’s been a blessing for the community,” Tully said.
The area's population was changing, though. Much of the younger workforce commuted from bigger metropolitan areas like Orlando, a 40-minute drive to the west.
As space companies hired younger workers, recruiting out of Florida's key engineering universities like Embry–Riddle and the University of Central Florida, the number of Brevard's 35 to 55-year-olds dropped 4.4 percent and those older than 60 grew by 4 percent.
Still, a nascent commercial space industry seeded Cape Canaveral's post-Shuttle development.
In 2014, Elon Musk's SpaceX secured a 20-year contract with NASA to lease Launch Complex 39A, the historic site used during the Apollo missions that sent the first humans to the moon.
And NASA’s Commercial Crew Program took shape as Boeing and SpaceX unveiled their first crew modules.
Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin started to hunt for similar leases on the space coast and had just signed an agreement to supply rocket engines to United Launch Alliance.
By early 2018, Blue Origin had completed a 750,000-square-foot rocket factory in Exploration Park, just outside the gates of Kennedy Space Center. This behemoth compound will build and service New Glenn, poised to become the largest commercial rocket to date, and has already created 330 new jobs.
While private companies make headway, NASA is working with Boeing on its Space Launch System—a super heavy lift launch vehicle intended to replace the retired space shuttle.
The first test launch of the SLS rocket, which NASA will use to send Lockheed Martin’s Orion Crew Vehicle to the moon, is slated for 2020.
“In Florida, we’ve had the privilege of a history that we can build on," says Mark Bontrager, Vice President for Spaceport Operations at Space Florida––the state's space-focused economic development agency.
The state anticipated fallout from the shuttle's retirement, and Bontrager says that NASA, the Air Force, and local municipalities worked as a team on a rebound strategy. "You had the state focused on ‘how do we remake this place for the future. What’s the opportunity?’"
"You can leap off this planet anywhere. So what’s gonna make Florida the best place to leap off the surface of the Earth?"
The Space Coast had 20 rocket launches in 2018, 15 from SpaceX and five from United Launch Alliance. Space Florida's game plan is to dramatically increase that launch cadence.
"We're publicly sayingwe're going to see100 to 200 launches a year,ten years from now"
There’s also a science to launching from Florida’s coast: lifting off from a pad closer to the equator gives rockets an orbital velocity assist. Since the Earth’s spin is fastest at the equator—its widest point—it can give rockets an extra push of up to 300 miles per hour as it escapes the atmosphere.
“The capacity of this spaceport is the largest in the world,” Bontrager boasted.
“The opportunities are endless, not just for engineers, but for people of all backgrounds and expertise,” said Sumayya Abukhalil, a recent graduate from the University of Central Florida’s aerospace engineering program. “What started as a government funded initiative to go to space in the 1950s is now on a path to becoming a trillion dollar industry.”
And for Florida’s Space Coast, the space industry is impacting other areas of the economy.
“We’re poised to be really busy,” Mulberry said of his Space Shirts company. “The things that are going on here are going to be great.”