NASA staff in Florida will never forget the date July 21, 2011, as it officially marked the end of its 30-year Space Shuttle programme.
Indeed, when the Space Shuttle ‘Atlantis’ emerged in the night sky above Cape Canaveral, there was the inevitable sadness at witnessing the historic end to the programme, but also unease about what next for the 8,000 employees about to be made redundant.
Almost two years on, while Florida’s Space Coast — a palm-fringed region that encompasses Kennedy Space Center and Cocoa Beach, and which was for so long synonymous with the space programme — has been affected by the biting global recession, nobody could have predicted its tenacious ability to fight to rebuild its aerospace and aviation sector.
According to Lynda Weatherman, president and CEO of the Space Coast Economic Development Commission (EDC), it had had some time to prepare for its reinvention, as former US president, George W Bush, warned that the Space Shuttle programme would be coming to an end as long ago as 2004.
In short, NASA would pull out of sending astronauts into low-earth orbit, leaving that to the private sector, and instead focus on future manned missions to Mars and an asteroid, via the Orion project.
“To me, it said there was going to be a gap – we just didn’t know how deep or how long. But we had seven years to prepare,” admits Weatherman, who reveals that the Space Coast EDC almost immediately set about telling its story and attempting to raise funds in order to mitigate the inevitable.
“Did I know back then that we’d be quite so successful as we have been?” muses Weatherman. “Well, I can’t tell you I was confident in 2004, but we had a plan at least, and we couldn’t afford to worry about what happened next.”
The first ray of light shone through the clouds the same year, when Lockheed Martin Space Systems, based on the Space Coast, won a contract then valued at $8.15 billion to build Orion.
The first tests of that vehicle are on course to take place next year when it will orbit Earth without a crew. But as Weatherman says,
400 jobs weren’t going to make up for the 8,000 lost.
The Shuttle launch site was reconfigured for commercial use and SpaceX, PayPal-founder Elon Musk’s aerospace company, hushed sceptics when in the summer of 2012, its rocket-powered launch system Falcon 9 shot heavenwards from Cape Canaveral, becoming the first privately held company to send a payload to the International Space Station.
“The market is now commercial,” enthuses Weatherman, noting that in addition to SpaceX, aerospace start-ups like XCOR and Rocket Crafters have also moved in.
Weatherman says both near-term and long-term opportunities appeared in the void that NASA’s Space Shuttle programme left, but part of the frustration for organisations like the EDC wanting to see economic prosperity return quickly to the Space Coast, is that there hasn’t been any aggressive movement by the federal government in its space policy.
“It hasn’t decided what it wants to do,” claims Weatherman. “While we see heavy lifting in the long-term and private opportunities in the short-term, we want as many opportunities as possible. And it’s up to us to go after them.”
Even with the private sector investing in the Space Coast, it wasn’t going to match NASA for job-creation — at least not in the short-term. And so the area had to expand its aerospace sector too.
“We were under the radar. We had Harris Corporation, so we knew we could put together a good package. We had history,” she says.
It also had the legacy of a workforce that had proved itself more than capable in 30-plus years of space engineering for NASA and Melbourne International Airport, which located just 28 miles from Cape Canaveral, was ideally placed to develop as an aviation gateway and centre for aerospace development.
Eight commercial flights a day already operated out of the airport, which also handled charter flights to the Bahamas, international corporate flights, a big flight training facility, and three or four specialty cargo flights a month.
Its other tenants included Plus Liberty Aerospace, Evektor Aircraft Inc and Embraer, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of commercial jets.
And LiveTV, the world’s leading provider of inflight entertainment for commercial airlines, had its world headquarters in a 40,000-square-foot facility there.
However, according to Melbourne’s assistant director, Larry Wuensch, the gateway wanted to actively try and turn the layoffs at the Space Center to its advantage.
“Aerospace engineers were just some of the highly qualified people laid off by NASA at the end of the Space Shuttle programme,” says Wuensch. “Suddenly, there was a huge talent pool available, so we decided to use this to our advantage and focus our marketing efforts on encouraging the recruitment of those highly skilled people who were looking for work and didn’t want to relocate.
“One of reasons Embraer moved so quickly with its engineering facilities was because it wanted to capture some of that engineering talent before it dissipated.”
In addition, Wuensch says it was economically advantageous for the airport to develop land it owned in excess of its needs for aviation.
“It was a marvellous way to develop a revenue source that would help finance our airport operations,” he says.
There are four separate parks on Melbourne’s property. Of these, a traditional industrial park goes after high-tech manufacturing companies; another contains hotels, motels and hospitals and there’s a residential park that houses more than 1,200 people in a large mobile home facility which, Wuensch says, nets around $800,000 a year for the company.
It also boasts its own research park that the airport has developed in conjunction with the Florida Institute of Technology.
The newest addition to its tenant list is Archo Solutions Engineering, another Brazilian company, which in March announced it would establish operations at the tech park, focusing on design engineering in the aeronautical, automotive and naval sectors. The move is expected to create 50 jobs by 2016.
“Some of the companies that have come here absolutely require an aviation environment, but we also have companies that want to be in a high tech centre because of the ability to attract employees and interact with like-minded companies,” says Wuensch.
“You get a synergy when you have a large number of these companies and they start relying on each other for support. After you get the ball rolling it takes on a life of its own.”
Harris, a communications company based at Melbourne International Airport, announced in September that it had been awarded a seven-year, $331 million contract to provide air and ground communications for the US Federal Aviation Administration.
Weatherman says the company, which provides expeditionary airlift and specialised aircraft modifications, brought 200 jobs to the area.
Another major coup for the airport is Northrop Grumman’s recent announcement that it plans to establish a Manned Aircraft Design Center of Excellence in Melbourne, bringing with it more than 1,000 new jobs.
And Embraer said last year it would be expanding its operations at the airport, adding a new research and development facility and creating 200 new engineering jobs in the process.
Weatherman says Embraer employed some of the 8,000 people who were laid off by NASA (others were employed in the Orion programme; some went to Charleston to work for Boeing; some chose to retire).
Today, the Space Coast has an 8.5% unemployment rate – the same as the US does nationally — which, while not perfect, Weatherman points out is better that the 20% some people were predicting.
Wuensch also believes that the airport’s strategy of investing in the development of its facilities over the last 20 to 30 years has proved instrumental in helping it attract the new tenants.
“We saw a slow down, but we’ve been developing the airport site for years in terms of our industrial sites, road system and utilities such as water and sewage, and the policy is beginning to pay off,” says Wuensch.
“In fact we’ve put millions of dollars that we generated from the industrial park back into the ground and that has helped us. When companies like Embraer saw that we had already made millions of dollars worth of improvements, they were able to hit the ground running, so to speak.”
Weatherman certainly has no doubts that Melbourne International Airport and the surrounding Space Coast region are unique, and the place to live and do aerospace business in the USA.
“It’s a fascinating, family oriented place,” she says. “We have beaches, fishing and boating. And although we have a lot of major Fortune 500 companies here – not to mention everything going on in the aviation and aerospace sector – it still has a small-town quality about it. It’s a phenomenon.”