St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Shuttle Disaster

Space Coast cringes at thought of slowdown

The Challenger explosion devastated the area's economy. Many business owners and workers hope Columbia's effects are different.

By JEFF HARRINGTON, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 4, 2003


COCOA BEACH -- Like clockwork, three minutes after every shuttle launch, the windows rumble in the headquarters of Ron Jon Surf Shop.

"It's this awesome, incredible power," Ron Jon president Ed Moriarty said, gesturing out his office window to a spot just left of a water tower where he watches the majesty of each launch.

That majestic rumbling can't begin again soon enough for the palatial Ron Jon store and other businesses along the Space Coast that have personal and professional links to the space program.

The space industry fuels more than 24,000 jobs in Brevard County, or 13 percent of the work force, according to the Economic Development Commission of Florida's Space Coast. It's a key anchor that's closely intertwined with tourism. About 2-million people a year come to the Kennedy Space Center, spending time on the Space Coast beaches and spending money at its restaurants, hotels and shops.

Businesses here remember the bitter consequences of the Challenger explosion in 1986. The space industry derailed for more than two years; 1,000 jobs at Kennedy Space Center were cut almost immediately; the unemployment rate jumped from 4.7 percent to 6 percent.

"Businesses closed. People were selling their houses for a lot less. There were tons of layoffs. It was awful," said Heidi Brandow, president and chief executive of the Cocoa Beach Area Chamber of Commerce.

She recalled how residents gathered to watch the resumption of space flight exactly two years and nine months after the Challenger explosion.

"People were standing outside with their fingers crossed. I still get goose bumps thinking of that day," Brandow said. "We can't go through that again. ... We've got to get back to flying."

As the storefront memorial signs dotting the A1A coastal interstate attest, residents from Cocoa Beach to Cape Canaveral to Titusville were grieving over Saturday's Columbia disaster. But a new emotion was taking hold with the onset of the work week: fear of another economic disaster.

"People are here less for the beach and more for the space center," said Bruce Burner, who runs a marketing center on Cape Canaveral that sells vacation packages. He worries that even if terrorism is ruled out as a cause of Columbia's disintegration, conspiracy theories will live on and that could impact tourism.

The Florida Space Authority, a state agency overseeing the industry, sent surveys to businesses Monday to gauge the impact of even a temporary shutdown of the space program. They doubted there would be a replay of the 1986 slowdown.

For one, the Space Coast economy is more diversified than a decade ago, with less reliance on a large, federal space program, space authority director Ed Gormel said.

For another, there appears to be a strong commitment to fly again soon.

Companies are heartened by President Bush's proposal to increase NASA's budget by more than 3 percent along with promises to keep the flight program intact.

Few working for NASA or its contractors wanted to think about the possibility of layoffs.

At the United Space Alliance (USA), a partnership between Boeing and Lockheed Martin that serves as the prime shuttle contractor for NASA, the security threat level was at Bravo on Monday, indicating a midlevel concern.

Spokeswoman Kari Fluegel said the alliance's 6,300 employees in Brevard are more concerned about the investigation into the explosion than they are about losing their jobs. "Talk of any RIFs (reductions in force) are very premature and quite frankly aren't even part of the discussion," she said.

Left awaiting any trickle-down effect are mom-and-pop businesses such as Space Shirts, a souvenir store just two miles south of the Kennedy Space Center gates.

Store owner Brenda Mulberry has relied on space center employees and visitors to buy many of her T-shirts, patches and buttons. She laid off a seamstress and two other employees in the business downturn after the Challenger accident. "It killed us," she said.

The hardest part for the Mulberry family after the Columbia disaster has not been the financial toll but the emotional one. Mulberry beams with pride at the drawing her 7-year-old son Geoffrey sketched out for church showing the Columbia shuttle with angels overhead.

"He draws it all the time freehand so he doesn't leave anything out," she said. "He even draws the separation of the boosters and everything."

Geoffrey's twin sister, Janet, adds earnestly, with a hint of exaggeration, that she has seen "like 60" shuttle launches in her young life.

Her dad, Gerry, who works at the United Space Alliance, can say without exaggeration that he has witnessed all but one of the launches. He thinks the program will get rolling again, maybe in six months or a year, but he worries about the disaster's toll on the men and women who have dreamed of traveling in space.

Hands in his pockets, Gerry Mulberry stared solemnly at a poster on the wall with photos of the Astronaut Class of 2002: 39 pilot and mission specialist candidates, 17 international partner astronauts and 100 active astronauts, including members of the Columbia crew.

"You wonder how many of these guys will bail out of the program now," he said.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.