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Florida's Space Coast was sparked by Sputnik

When the Russians launched 50 years ago, a Florida town took off.

By STEPHEN NOHLGREN, Times Staff Writer
Published September 30, 2007


COCOA -- All over the country, Americans buzzed about the new interloper in the sky.

Was it watching us?

Could it drop bombs?

How did the plodding Russians, they of beet soup and heavy winter coats, capture the high ground of space without any warning?

The launch of Sputnik 50 years ago, on Oct. 4, 1957, shook America's self-image to the core -- though you'd never know by reading the Cocoa Tribune. When the thrice-weekly newspaper hit porch steps three days later, the front page carried nary a word.

The world's first satellite apparently did not compete with Fire Prevention Week, dedication of the First Presbyterian Church and approval of the city's yearly budget of $272,323.

Such was Brevard County in 1957, a sleepy stretch of Florida coastline, where mullet, crabs and oranges drove much of the economy.

Out on the sandy scrub of Cape Canaveral, military types were firing off experimental missiles, hoping to develop deadlier ways of waging war.

But those labors barely scraped the national consciousness. After all, most homes had television sets by 1957. Americans had weekly dates with I Love Lucy, Wagon Train and the Mickey Mouse Club. Ford Motor Co. had unveiled its flashy new Edsel. Jack Kerouac had penned On the Road. And the Dodgers were leaving Brooklyn.

Then Sputnik made missiles matter.

Suddenly, America was in second place.

School systems retooled their curricula to stress math and science.

Spaceships and astronauts graduated from comic book fantasy to prime-time priorities.

And Brevard County, a backwater even by Florida standards, assumed the weight of a nation's hopes.

Building Brevard

By 1960, Brevard was the fastest growing county in America. More than 111,000 people lived there, up five-fold from the 23,000 of 1950. It also had the state's highest per capita income.

Engineers, defense contractors and construction workers flooded in, as did refugee German scientists whose V-1 and V-2 rockets had pounded London during World War II.

Housing was in such short supply that locals rented out rooms and newcomers slept in their cars. At one point, a huge concrete pipe was being laid across a causeway to bring potable water to the Cape. When work ended for the day, perfectly fine empty pipe dotted the roadsides. So people slept there.

"There were no 'For Sale' ads in the classifieds," says Speedy Harrell, then a Cocoa postal worker. "If you had anything to sell, you just called the chamber of commerce and they would send over two or three people looking for anything."

The beaches were isolated and swampy. Most missile workers lived on the mainland, with only one, bumper-to-bumper route to the Cape's launch pads. Cars veering off the two-lane road would bog down in soft sand, so people changed flat tires right on the road, stalling traffic for miles.

In a brief memoir, retiree John Manning recalled how a local radio station would broadcast traffic information from a reporter on a mule, because the mule could navigate the sand.

"The reporter would note wrecks and flat tires and get the names of the driver," Manning wrote, "and then tell the families that there was no need to worry."

Trying to exact road-building funds from the state, Brevard officials staged a seven-mile race between a man on foot and a car at rush hour from downtown Cocoa to the beach, writes Jerrell Shofner in History of Brevard County.

The man on foot won.

Shofner also thought traffic may have contributed to another problem: Brevard's divorce rate was among the country's highest.

Work days at the Cape were long and unpredictable to begin with. Launches were routinely delayed long into the night. Why crawl along A1A going home when you could sit a bar, rehash the day's events and wait for traffic to thin out?

"They were caught up in a creative adventure. They were so fired up by what they were doing," says Tom MacFarland, who recently retired as librarian for Florida Institute of Technology. "But it wasn't easy on family life."

MacFarland's family lived in Broadmoor Acres, a Cocoa subdivision with tract homes carved from an old dirt landing strip.

His father ran a hardware store, but next door lived Herman McDonald and across the street, Grady Williams -- both Cape engineers who seemed young, smart and invincible.

"My family was from the coal-mining area from eastern Ohio. They were just plain folks. If they had a drink, it was just beer," he says. "If you went to the McDonalds', it was a martini. We had overstuffed, secondhand furniture. They had a sling chair. They were with it.

"No way the Russians could do what they could. Mac McDonald and Grady Williams could kick their butts."

Studying science

The Brevard County School District struggled to keep up with the growth. From 1950 to 1970, it added 56 schools and more than 65,000 students, according to Shofner's history.

Double sessions ruled, but pell-mell growth did carry advantages. Brevard qualified for extra federal "impact" funds, given to districts loaded with government employees. Math and sciences were emphasized, to educate new workers for the original Cape Canaveral facilities and the Kennedy Space Center, which was added in 1962.

Brevard Community College, operating out of the old Cocoa High School building, taught Russian.

"Sputnik goes up and suddenly you need to know Russian," says MacFarland's brother Ron, now a literature and creative writing professor at the University of Idaho.

"Back then in Cocoa, hardly any self-respecting male would consider a career outside of science. I was thinking about microbiology."

Instead, Russian classes led him to Doesteyevsky and a life of words. "I've been very grateful," MacFarland says.

Even today, Brevard public schools rank among the country's best. Under Florida's ranking system, 88 percent earned A grades last year.

Move to diversity

The space program also helped Brevard avoid the painful civil rights upheavals common to other Southern towns in the 1960s, say people who lived through it.

In 1950, African-Americans lived west of the railroad tracks and depended largely on seasonal citrus-picking jobs. They drank from separate water fountains and watched movies from a curtained off corner of the State Theater.

Early in the decade, a bomb killed civil rights leader Harry T. Moore and his wife in Mims, just up the road from Cocoa. A service club's newsletter advertised it as the Kocoa Kiwanis Klub, leaving little doubt who was welcome and who wasn't.

But rapid expansion of the space program brought steady, well-paying jobs to all races.

Richard Blake, recently retired as principal of Cocoa High School, recalls how his family's fortunes improved after his father left the groves to learn cement finishing at the Cape.

With skills and seed money, his father began to build and buy rental property to house other workers. Nine of the 10 Blake children earned college degrees.

Formal segregation was foreign to Brevard's college-educated Northern immigrants. Among them were engineers and other professionals of color who could afford to break barriers and live in some of Brevard's better neighborhoods.

"We got such a diverse complex of people, working for one cause -- to be successful in space," says Blake. "It brought about a closeness with black and white working side-by-side. Because of this, many blacks were going to universities."

Titusville, where 2,604 people lived in 1950, tried at first to resist rapid development, with city officials rejecting zoning requests for new housing.

"They knew it was going to change our way of life, says Lee Starrick, 65. "They were concerned about crime. They knew our sleepy town would be gone."

But a causeway that connected the mainland to the northern edge of the space complex proved too alluring. People were going to live where they wanted to live.

Starrick's father landed a construction job at the Cape and Starrick worked for years as a space center firefighter. Now retired, he volunteers at the Space Walk of Fame Museum in Titusville, proudly explaining memorabilia to visitors.

Still, he remembers the early days of tension between locals and the "outsiders."

"Cape engineers thought they were smarter than everybody here. That filtered down to their kids," he says. "They made a lot more money than the locals."

Bud Adams, the retired Cape engineer, wrote that local businesses would gouge newcomers on rent, tires and food, figuring that those with the high-falutin salaries could afford it.

End of the boom

The Brevard boom continued for more than a decade after Sputnik, fueled by President John F. Kennedy's 1961 pledge to put a man on the moon. By 1969, when Neil Armstrong took that first step, layoffs at the Cape had already begun. American had clearly surpassed the Russians and funding dried up.

Brevard's population grew only 5 percent between 1970 and 1976, while the rest of Florida grew by 30 percent.

The housing market -- once so hot people slept in pipes -- collapsed so badly that people routinely gave their homes to anyone who would take over payments.

In his History of Brevard County, Shofner recounts a day space center officials announced a particularly deep round of layoffs.

Whether or not they purposely timed their announcement is unclear -- only that an unrelated announcement in Orlando the same day softened the blow.

It seems that a powerful new source of jobs was headed to Central Florida, which promised to give Brevard workers a boost.

Something about a mouse and a theme park.

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.