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Town's fate hinges on agency's

TAMARA LUSH
Published February 1, 2004

TITUSVILLE - For decades, Bob Arnold has had a front row seat for America's space program.

He remembers the heady days of the Kennedy Space Center's birth, when his dad helped build the launch pad America would use to explore a new frontier.

He has seen countless rockets blaze through the night sky, heard the sonic boom of the space shuttle cutting through the sleepy town's silence. Now, at 54, Arnold spends his retirement years volunteering at the Space Walk Hall of Fame, a small park on the banks of the Indian River.

Like other small towns near Cape Canaveral, Titusville takes the space program personally.

The past year hasn't been easy.

One year ago today, the space shuttle Columbia was headed for a safe landing in Titusville. Instead, it disintegrated over Texas, killing all seven astronauts aboard.

Sorrow over the loss of the astronauts has been replaced by other emotions.

"We're apprehensive about the future," Arnold said last week as he took a break from painting a memorial to Mercury 7 astronauts.

President Bush has set an ambitious goal for NASA: travel back to the moon and then to Mars. That would require a new space ship. The era of the shuttle is almost over.

* * *

But instead of feeling hopeful, the Space Coast is anxious.

Arnold posed the question on everyone's mind: "What's going to happen beyond the shuttle?"

From rocket scientists to firefighters, bartenders to dishwashers, thousands of people here depend on the shuttle for their livelihood.

It has been NASA's workhorse since it first launched in 1981. About 23,000 people work in the space industry in Brevard County alone, nearly all somehow involved with the shuttle.

But no one knows when the shuttle will fly again or for how long.

"Everybody's got questions and nobody's got answers," said Steve Dudgeon, a firefighter at Kennedy Space Center. "We wonder what we're going to be doing in six years."

After the shuttles

Everyone braced for the worst after Columbia. When Challenger exploded after liftoff 18 years ago, thousands were laid off. It was 21/2 years before another shuttle launched.

"At first everyone was very depressed, nervous and scared," said Debbie Hardy, who manages Searstown Mall, home of the Space Walk of Fame Museum. Her husband works for Boeing in space station operations.

But this time, there were no massive layoffs.

"It's really not been as bad as I would have expected," Hardy said.

The three remaining shuttles are grounded while NASA studies how to make them safer. The space agency hopes to launch again late this year or early 2005.

But everyone knows the shuttle eventually will go the way of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo vehicles.

Last month, President Bush said a new Crew Exploration Vehicle, capable of ferrying people to a lunar base where they could depart for Mars or beyond, will replace the shuttle.

"The shuttles have been good to us, but they're old," said Capt. Winston Scott, who flew two shuttle missions in the 1990s and is now director of the Florida Space Authority, an economic development group for space-related business and tourism.

Money from space

The space shuttle has been good to the Space Coast.

The average space industry worker earns $70,000, more than twice the average outside the industry in Brevard County.

The economic impact in Brevard County is $1.5-billion, said W. Warren McHone, a University of Central Florida professor who specializes in the space industry.

The impact extends far beyond the area. Fourteen space-related businesses are in Pinellas County and seven in Hillsborough. The impact statewide is about $2.2-billion, McHone said.

Still, Titusville is not the company town it once was. It is evolving into a bedroom community to Orlando, 45 minutes away.

People here still hope the space business will rise again and dominate the hearts and minds of Titusville residents.

The pride is evident among old-timers.

They talk about Channel 15, the "NASA Channel," which only shows government interviews and footage from the Space Center.

They use the collective "we" when talking about a shuttle launch.

And they all fondly recall the heyday of the 1960s, when people partied at the Holiday Inn during launches and Mercury 7 astronauts cruised to nearby Cocoa Beach in Corvettes.

Titusville's population exploded, from 6,400 in 1960 to 41,000, largely because of the space industry.

Its impact is everywhere, from a school named Astronaut High to the restaurant named Shuttles, where people can eat a $4.95 Endeavour burger while gazing at autographed photos of nearly every shuttle crew for the past 15 years.

Will the president's new space vision bring a new economic boom?

"I'm always confident that the space program is going to continue, but we don't want to see a gap between the shuttle retirement and a replacement vehicle," said Capt. Scott. "And we want that new vehicle based out of here."

Not everyone is so optimistic.

The biggest doubters may be those who have worked for NASA. They've seen Congress slash funding. They've read opinion polls showing America divided over the future of the space program.

Charlie Mars, a 68-year-old retired NASA engineer, doesn't think he will live to see astronauts on Mars. Or the moon again, for that matter.

"I don't have the confidence that we will sustain this goal," said Mars, president of the Space Walk of Fame Museum. "Where are we going to get the money?"

- Tamara Lush can be reached at 727-893-8612 or at lush@sptimes.com

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