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'We've righted the ship:' New space race fuels massive economic comeback on Space Coast

The U.S. Air Force's 45th Space Wing supported SpaceX's successful launch of the KoreaSat-5A satellite aboard a Falcon 9 rocket on Oct. 30, 2017, at NASA's Kennedy Space Center on the Air Force Eastern Range, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.

SPACEX

By CHABELI HERRERA | Orlando Sentinel | Published: September 1, 2018

MERRITT ISLAND (Tribune News Service) — Inside a dark little shop on the edge of Kennedy Space Center, every sliver of wall space is dedicated to capturing space's enduring attraction. There are 50th anniversary Apollo moon landing T-shirts, launch patches, replica astronaut suits.

In the seven years since the shuttle program ended at the Space Coast, the region has returned from nearly 12 percent unemployment to 3.9 percent unemployment, bolstered by new companies and a diversified economy.

Hanging in the bathroom are prints depicting the last three shuttle launches – Discovery, Endeavor and Atlantis.

On a recent Thursday, while workers loaded baby blue T-shirts onto a screen printing machine, a customer grinned at employees behind the front desk.

"It's a great time on the Space Coast," he said. "How could we not have a smile on our faces?"

The 34-year-old store doesn't exist just to feed nostalgic appetites. In fact, like many businesses on the Space Coast, it's thriving.

Space Shirts is one of many benefactors of a comeback engineered by Brevard County that, in seven years, has lifted itself from the depths of an unemployment crisis at the end of the shuttle program to become one of the premier destinations for aerospace manufacturing and rocket launches in the country.

"We've never been busier," said Brenda Mulberry, president of Merritt Island's Space Shirts. The store has more than doubled its business since the shuttle program formally ended seven years ago Friday.

The 30-year program's closure signaled the loss of about 9,000 direct jobs and thousands more indirect ones in Brevard County. Worsened by the economic recession, unemployment in Brevard bottomed out at 11.8 percent in 2010. Some people even thought Kennedy Space Center had closed.

To survive, KSC moved from just a launch site to a place where spacecraft could be assembled, including the next-generation deep space exploration vehicle Orion, which is nearly complete. The region's economy diversified to welcome suppliers and manufacturers. Brazilian aerospace giant Embraer created nearly 1,000 jobs and aerospace and defense company Northrop Grumman Corp. added about 3,000.

And then came the high-profile private space companies Tesla founder Elon Musk's SpaceX and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezo's Blue Origin set up camp on the Space Coast, bringing with them a new, 330-job rocket factory for Blue Origin, opening in February, and the promise of crewed flights from SpaceX as early as April – the first from American soil since the shuttle program shut down.

By July 2018, unemployment in Brevard had fallen to 3.9 percent. And by August, the Space Coast Economic Development Commission said the Cape had created 8,718 mostly space-related jobs since October 2010, when unemployment rates were at their highest.

Space Shirts now sells T-shirts to private space companies – not just NASA. On a recent afternoon, a navy blue Tesla was parked next to a space reserved as "astronaut parking."

And next door at Shuttles Restaurant and Bar, a place famous for hosting astronauts and NASA engineers, the clientele has changed, too.

Asked if he now sees workers from the nearby Blue Origin rocket factory, night manager Rick Stine simply replied, "Oh, they're our lunch crowd now."

Turning a corner

The first sign of a turnaround came with the "surprising success of SpaceX," said Dale Ketcham, vice president of government and external relations at the state's spaceport authority, Space Florida.

"To see a young, brash guy doing what Elon did and succeeding at it, and coming in at a price point that made the industry very anxiety-ridden, that sort of let people know that they hadn't lost the Cape," he said.

Then, when Blue Origin announced in 2015 it would build its New Glenn rocket at a 750,000-square-foot facility at Kennedy Space Center, the comeback was in full swing. Other companies, including satellite company OneWeb and supplier RUAG Space USA, also announced plans to move to the Cape.

That diversification was key, said Lynda Weatherman, president and CEO of the Space Coast Economic Development Commission.

"When you have that food chain of the industry is when you have the depth and strength of industrial base – we are not relying on one facet of [the business]," she said.

The high cadence of launches from the Space Coast is also fueling the area's economic growth. So far this year, there have been 15 of them – almost twice as many as even during the busiest years of the shuttle program. By 2021, the Cape is anticipating 48 annual launches.

The potential opportunities are enough to bring former engineers back into the industry.

Jody Tobin, who worked as a test conductor for the shuttle Endeavor, lost his job in 2011 and went on to start Space Coast Segway Tours, offering excursions for cruise passengers from Port Canaveral. Recently, a friend who works for Blue Origin said he's relocating to the Cape and they'll be hiring next year. Tobin plans to apply.

For someone who spent 25 years in the aerospace industry, whose entire family – dad, sisters and brothers – all worked the shuttles, the lure of space is irresistible, he said.

"When I watch it on TV and I see the space shuttle or SpaceX, it's like, 'Oh, God, I used to do that,' " Tobin said. "[The Space Coast] isn't at full throttle, but slowly but surely, within the next three to four years, Brevard County will be hitting on all 12 cylinders again."

The employment gap

Exponential growth doesn't come without challenges.

A shortage of highly skilled, technical workers is plaguing the Cape. Schools don't offer the necessary training and don't have the appropriate equipment to prepare students for the kinds of jobs aerospace employers are looking for, while employers have been less than forthcoming about the exact skills they require for fear their competitors will catch on to what they're working on.

One group serving as a mediator is CareerSource Brevard, which has its sights set on attracting engineers, building up tech education and increasing the number of internship and apprenticeship programs.

The challenge, said Judy Blanchard, vice president of industry relations at CareerSource Brevard, is "how quickly can you, as an ecosystem, develop that talent pipeline and deliver it to your industry partner that is waiting on that skill set?"

A Space Coast Consortium, a partnership led largely by RUAG, is moving ahead with an apprenticeship program in which students would work part-time and go to school part-time, while learning the skills that companies require. By the end of the program, students would have jobs waiting for them.

The group is looking to offer 31 apprenticeship positions beginning in January, said Bryan Kamm, founder and CEO of Kamm Consulting, which is helping with the consortium.

Another, 10-week, baseline certification program in manufacturing that trains students in entry-level production jobs, has been running for several years. It has helped place more than 80 percent of its students in area jobs, said Weatherman.

But there's lots of work left to do, industry leaders said, particularly considering how competitive the aerospace industry is now.

Spaceports dot the U.S., from California to Texas to Virginia. Private companies can go anywhere, Weatherman said, and the Space Coast can't afford to see the business leave – again.

"We have our challenges, the competition is severe and we never want to take it for granted," she said. "But we've turned the corner. We've righted the ship."

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