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Shuttle disaster pain still lingers

The loss of the space shuttle almost a year ago rocked the tourism industry and took an emotional toll at the Kennedy Space Center.

Associated Press
Published December 29, 2003

CAPE CANAVERAL - Thousands of workers in Brevard County, home of the Kennedy Space Center, lost their jobs after the Challenger explosion and suspension of the shuttle program in early 1986.

In February, 17 years later, the shuttle Columbia disintegrated on its approach to Florida's Space Coast. But this shuttle disaster did not result in major layoffs or economic upheaval in this beachside county. What has been repeated is the emotional drain that comes from losing a space shuttle.

The toll can be found on the faces of space workers, who arrive at Patricia Bell's office with feelings of guilt and fear. For some of those workers, it could take years to recover from the loss of NASA's oldest space shuttle. "There is a sense of inadequacy ... guilt, a sense of loss," said Bell, a mental health counselor at the center.

The three remaining shuttles were grounded when Columbia tore apart over Texas during descent, killing all seven astronauts. Five others launches scheduled for 2004 were postponed. NASA has targeted next September or October to return the shuttle program to flight.

"For us at the Space Coast, it's a psychological hit," said Rob Varley, director of the Space Coast Office of Tourism. "We're known as the place where the shuttle takes off. ... When we lose that, it's a big, big loss, probably more psychological than economic."

Kennedy Space Center isn't just Brevard's largest source of jobs, most of them contracted to private firms, but it's also the emotional heart of the community. Most of the space center's 14,400 employees live and work in the county. The area's growth to 500,000 residents has come on the back of the space program and the technological businesses it inspired. Many of the county's schools are named after space shuttles and NASA rockets.

Most of the space center's work force has remained intact this year. In 1986, after the Challenger disaster, the center laid off nearly 2,400 workers, many of them with highly paid jobs, reducing its work force to 13,664.

If there has been any economic fallout from the grounding of the space shuttles, it has been in Brevard's $2-billion tourism industry. But even that impact has been rather small, Varley said.

Each launch brings in about $5-million in tourism money from the 100,000 to 150,000 visitors who come to watch the shuttle lift off and fill up many of the county's 10,000 hotel rooms. Factoring in the five postponed launches for the year, the economic loss has been in the ballpark of $25-million.

The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex has been hit particularly hard.

Each shuttle launch brings about 15,000 visitors to the tourist attraction at the space center, which recounts the history of the U.S. space program. The economic loss from those missing 15,000 visitors each launch will add up to at least $2.1-million this year because regular admission costs $28 per adult.

The visitor center, which had 641 employees in 2002, laid off more than a dozen workers in May, but that had more to do with a visitor slowdown since Sept. 11 than any effects of the shuttle grounding. NASA's economic impact in Brevard is enormous. University of Central Florida economics professor W. Warren McHone recently estimated that NASA had a $2.2-billion economic impact last year in Florida, most of it in Brevard.

McHone said the shuttle grounding likely won't have a noticeable economic impact because "most of the relationships and contracts with NASA are longer than just one year."

Most of the 6,400 workers for United Space Alliance, NASA's main contractor for the shuttle program, have been busy since the shuttle grounding, working on the remaining shuttles, said Jessica Rye, a company spokeswoman.

"There is a lot of work to be done on the three shuttles," Rye said. Bell, the mental health counselor, noticed a spike in visits at the six-month anniversary of the Columbia disaster and she expects more will come at the year anniversary in about six weeks. Many employees found comfort in touring the shuttle hangar where the shuttle debris was assembled for the investigation into the accident. Greater comfort will come with efforts to return the shuttles to flight, she said. "I think it's extremely important," she said. "It gives people a sense of continuation and purpose."

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