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Space: the Florida frontier

Until we leave the exosphere again, aerospace types talk shop at Shuttles, a bar where NASA and dreams converge in Brevard County.

By TAMARA LUSH
Published May 9, 2005


  photo
[Times photo: Stephen J. Coddington]
Retired Lockheed Martin engineer Jerry Woodcock, 67, has worked on everything from ICBMs to the Apollo program to Titan unmanned rockets. Now Woodcock is a regular at Shuttles bar, just south of the John F. Kennedy Space Center. Regulars include astronauts, engineers and other NASA workers.
photo
[AP photo]
Shuttle Discovery at Cape Canaveral. With its launch delayed until July, the surrounding space community waits in anticipation.

MERRITT ISLAND - Shuttles, the closest bar to the Kennedy Space Center, is the kind of place where everybody is on a first-name basis.

The NASA engineers know the space center firefighters, and they drink beer with the aerospace project managers, and everyone knows when the astronauts walk in for buffalo wings.

It's kind of like the bar in the TV program Cheers, only the patrons are really, really smart. For instance, when the Titan rocket launched the other week, it wasn't odd to hear this conversation:

Woman: "Hey, Kathy, does the Titan have SRBs?"

Kathy: "Yes, it does!"

Everyone nearby nodded; all were familiar with the term "SRB." (In case you didn't know, SRB is an acronym for "solid rocket booster." If you want further explanation of what an SRB does, visit Shuttles and ask anyone at the bar. They will give you all the details, possibly with blueprints and mathematical equations.)

All of Brevard County - and some say most of Florida - is affected by the programs at the Kennedy Space Center. These programs put $1.4-billion and 14,500 jobs into Brevard's economy in 2004, even though the center's three space shuttles have been grounded since Columbia disintegrated during its return to Florida, killing all seven astronauts onboard.

Yet few places are more emotionally connected to the space center than Shuttles. Over the years, it has become the place to hoist a cold one to celebrate a launch. It is also where more than one engineer has mourned a lost job, and where an entire community came to mourn the lost crew of the Columbia.

This spring was supposed to be a triumphant one, a historic moment when the shuttle returned to the sky.

But just a few weeks before a planned launch, NASA officials delayed its liftoff from late May to mid July because of safety concerns with the external fuel tank.

Everyone on the Space Coast, everyone inside Shuttles, was deflated. Astronauts urged patience.

"We will fly our space shuttle someday, and we will fly this mission," shuttle commander Eileen Collins told the media last week. "This is something that we're very excited about, and we want you to hang with us, be patient. We know that we're doing the right thing, and we ask you to hang in there in the interest of the mission."

Sometime this month, the giant orange and white aircraft will be rolled away from the launch pad and into the Vehicle Assembly Building for tests and repairs.

And the people at Shuttles have put their celebration on hold.

***

Jerry Woodcock is a regular at Shuttles. Now 67, he spent nearly four decades as an aerospace engineer.

Woodcock's place is at the far end of the bar, across the room from the framed, glossy photos of astronaut crews and the flight stickers from long-finished missions. His corner smells like Old Spice aftershave, cold beer and spicy buffalo chicken wings.

He visits Shuttles nearly every day, and some of his friends who are still working in the industry sometimes bring out "The Old Blue Book" - a binder of rocket schematics for propellant loading units - and place it on the bar for all to dissect.

"It's not an uncommon occurrence to hear that type of discussion here at Shuttles," Woodcock says with a grin.

Woodcock bears a startling resemblance to Ernest Hemingway - he is fuzzy-bearded and broad-shouldered and very manly - but instead of discussing big game hunts and bullfights, Woodcock uses terms such as "dimethyl hydrazine" in casual conversation.

Woodcock's long and bumpy contractor path - from working on intercontinental ballistic missiles to the Apollo, Delta and Titan programs - isn't unusual. He and his wife and kids traveled to where the rockets, and the jobs, were.

When he retired from Lockheed Martin, he stayed in the area. His two daughters are engineers - one works on the shuttle - and he loves being the expert-in-residence at the far end of the Shuttles bar.

He takes the industry's layoffs and explosions, the triumphs and the discoveries, with a measured stoicism.

He predicts that a few hundred people will lose their jobs at Lockheed Martin once the Titan program ends this month; it's one more indication that space industry jobs are becoming scarce, as government contracts dry up and fewer commercial satellites need a hitch into orbit.

Woodcock was almost laid off in 1986.

It was just before the shuttle Challenger flew for the last time and the Titan program had only two scheduled rocket launches left.

After Challenger blew up, the government awarded Lockheed more contracts, which meant dozens of additional launches. Woodcock's job was spared.

"It ended up being very good for me personally," he said, shaking his head. "Our fortunes rose and fell with the shuttle."

Like everyone connected with the space industry, Woodcock was genuinely depressed by the loss of the Challenger crew. And over the Columbia tragedy. He wears a T-shirt that says, "In Memory of Columbia OV-102" on its sleeve.

"Things like that happen," Woodcock said. "You get over it. You move on. Space travel is dangerous."

Woodcock has an aggressive optimism about launching the shuttle again and putting people back in space. Maybe it was born the day he watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon, which he called "the greatest, most wonderful" thing he had ever seen.

"You are pretty much in awe when it works," he said.

Woodcock and others may worry about the future of the space program, but they don't worry about the future of Brevard County.

By all measures, it is booming. The median home price rose 35 percent, to $186,000. Five of the county's top 10 employers are not space-related. And the population has boomed to nearly 500,000, a 20 percent change since the 1990 census.

But people can't forget the shuttle, part of an aging fleet that is scheduled for retirement in 10 or so years.

"Everyone wants the shuttle to fly, and fly soon," said Capt. Winston Scott, a former astronaut and executive director of the Florida Space Authority, an economic development agency.

***

Gus Venegas, another regular at Shuttles, started as an engineer at NASA in 1976, right after the massive Apollo layoffs.

"I was embarrassed to tell people that I worked at NASA," Venegas said. "Everyone was bad-mouthing NASA."

There were about 25,000 NASA employees in Brevard County in 1968; by 1976, that number plummeted to 8,500. Divorce rates were through the roof, and homes were all but abandoned.

But Venegas was one of the lucky few, and he reveled in his dream job. As a young boy growing up in Cuba, he watched Flash Gordon. He and his family fled communism and Castro, and he remembers one thing from that time in his life: seeing the first Star Trek TV series.

Now 52, Venegas has been at NASA for 29 years. He has lost count of the number of shuttle projects he has worked on. Venegas works in the design department, creating the equipment that checks the onboard instruments.

He saw the massive layoffs at NASA and its contractors after the Challenger explosion (nearly 2,200) and far fewer after Columbia (300 pink slips at most).

Venegas has also seen the culture at NASA change. It went from bad to worse after both shuttle disasters, but he's reluctant to talk about specifics.

It is widely known that NASA officials ignored worries about the potential damage of the foam insulation that flew off and knocked a hole in Columbia's wing. Accident investigators chided NASA administrators for creating a poor culture of safety and a climate of intense pressure in favor of reducing costs and increasing flight schedules.

The climate was so toxic that this year, the government hired a behavioral science company to help improve it.

Venegas, who did not participate in the Columbia mission, is guarded in his remarks about the agency. After all, he's 21/2 years away from retirement.

Yet he's glad that the shuttle launch has been postponed.

"The most important thing is to do the job right," he said. "I'd rather err on the side of safety."

He also has good words to say about Michael Griffin, NASA's new administrator. Griffin has vowed to "leave absolutely no stone unturned in making certain that we are as safe as we know how to be in flight," according to his April remarks to the Web site Sci-Tech Today.

This attitude has impressed self-proclaimed geeks like Venegas.

"I believe he's really putting safety first; I think he has a good understanding of technology," said Venegas. "He's not only working spreadsheets and schedules."

That was one of the criticisms of previous administrators: They were accountants, not scientists.

Venegas has hope for the space program. And he's now proud to say he works for NASA.

***

On a recent Friday night at Shuttles, the bar TV carried a historic moment: the final Titan rocket launch in Florida.

"Six, five, four . . . "

The two dozen people inside Shuttles took their napkins and wiped wing sauce off their faces, picked up their beers and walked out the back door. It was dark out, yet Woodcock and Venegas and everyone else knew exactly which direction to face so they could see the launch - somewhere beyond the smoking gazebo, above the parking lot, over a patch of pine trees.

The TV's sound wafted outside.

"Three, two, one . . . we have a mission!"

Venegas stood silent as a thick fireball sliced up, up, up through the night sky, until it paused over the treetops.

The glow faded quickly, leaving only smoke. Everyone strolled back in, and no one seemed all that impressed.

After all, it's not a space shuttle, just a unmanned rocket.

"Hopefully, we'll have a shuttle launch down the road that will look like that," Venegas said.

-- Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Tamara Lush can be reached at 727 893-8612 or lush@sptimes.com

[Last modified May 7, 2005, 13:05:06]


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