She has kept her enthusiasm. To this day, Pat Christian follows every rocket launch. From her front yard or from the beach, she can see how a bright beam rises into the sky beyond the Indian River and then slowly disappears.
“The windows shake, the dog barks, the cat runs away.” This is how it feels when a rocket is launched over in Cape Canaveral. Do you ever get used to it? “No way!”
Christian sits at the Pier of Titusville, from where you have a good view of the spectacle. Over there, on the other side of the river, the facade of the Nasa hangar flickers, start ramps can be seen on the right, the next rocket is waiting for one.
The spaceport on Florida’s east coast is suddenly active again after years of silence. Since NASA mothballed most of its programs in 2011, the site had gradually been deserted – and the region around it, which many only call the “Space Coast”, has been rattling into recession.
Now, just on the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing, there is high activity again, also thanks to private companies such as SpaceX, the company of Tesla co-founder Elon Musk, or Blue Origin, the company of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.
The area is booming as before – and 68-year-old Pat Christian is also flourishing. As a child, she wanted to be an astronomer, in 1988 she ended up at NASA, looking after astronauts, VIP guests and reporters. She witnessed every take-off, every landing and also the “Columbia” accident, after which she mourned for weeks. The last Space Shuttle retired in July 2011, and Christian a week later.
Now the retiree is happy about the sudden missile renaissance. “We are all one big family,” says Christian about the professional and private space nerds in the Brevard district, which includes a dozen other coastal communities in addition to the famous Cape Canaveral.
The rebirth of the “Space Coast” is more than nostalgia: it is a small economic miracle.
Space and tourism have always been the most important industries in this swamp area. Closely interlinked, they revitalized the gastronomy, retail and real estate markets. At the height of the Apollo era in the 1960s and 1970s, the “Space Coast” was also a party mecca. “It was like the Wild West,” says Ben Malik, Mayor of Cocoa Beach at Cape Canaveral.
Then an economic ascent and descent began: With the end of the Apollo missions in 1972, the economy initially collapsed. The space shuttle program provided a new upswing from 1981. From 2011, the US Congress turned the tap on this too.
Malcolm Denemark / Florida Today / AP / DPA
It seemed to be the final killing blow for the region where schools and streets are named after astronauts. There are two space museums here, you dine in the Orbit Café, you spend the night in the Satellite Motel, and the phone code sounds like a countdown: 321.
More than 25,000 people lost their jobs as a result of the rocket recession, not only at NASA, but also in the hotels, restaurants and shops that depended on the space industry. The unemployment rate rose to twelve percent.
“It was a tough time,” says Lynda Weatherman, chief of the Space Coast Economic Development Commission, the district’s primary development agency. “I’ve been in business for 40 years, and for the first time I had to hire the Salvation Army because a lot of people no longer had a roof over their heads.”
“I grew up with NASA,” said Dale Ketchum, the vice president of Space Florida, a state agency that promotes the region and distributes subsidies. “It’s great when everything is going well, but when the main employer goes down it hurts.”
Space Florida was founded in 2006 when the end of the shuttle era was imminent. “We made a conscious decision,” says Ketchum. “We no longer rely on the government, but are also looking for commercial providers.”
They traveled the world to advertise and learn, looked at Detroit, which was emerging from the auto crisis with a new tech industry, explored Singapore and Ireland, two states that got back on the curve after economic crises.
Finally, three billionaires rushed to the rescue: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson gave the “Space Coast” a new chance.
Today, the region is once again one of the busiest space centers in the world: Nowhere else will more companies cluster who want to go into space or deliver for such plans.
- The old ramp 39A, from which Apollo 11 set off for the moon and the “Challenger” shuttle for its fatefully short journey, is today for Musks SpaceX reserved.
- Bezos’ Blue Origin has taken over ramp 36.
- And the United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, uses two nearby Nasa launch complexes.
In 2018, 20 rockets launched from the peninsula, this year already six. According to NASA and the Air Force, which is in command on the site, it will soon be at least 48 a year.
In the “Exploration Park”, a new industrial zone, Blue Origin is building its New Glenn rocket in an enormous blue hall, named after John Glenn, the first American in space. Boeing has rented the old Kennedy Space Center space shuttle hangar, Lockheed Martin has rented a neighboring NASA hall.
Smaller start-ups also tried to benefit from the new tech boom. It was the birth of a new “Space Coast”, which is not only a spaceport, but also a production facility for rockets, satellites and equipment that had previously been assembled elsewhere.
The old monoculture became a diversified industry. This also means that new talents are required, not only rocket makers, but also physicists, programmers, designers. “We compete with Silicon Valley and Seattle,” says Space Florida Ketchum.
The region is now doing well again. The unemployment rate was recently only 3.1 percent – still below the US-wide average of 3.4 percent. “Comeback coast,” headlined the Washington Post, the industry service “SpaceNews” wrote of the “turn of the year”.
Housing estates are being created everywhere for employees of private space groups, including schools, shopping centers and luxury hotels. Real estate prices are rising. Cocoa Beach is also freshly scrubbed, new pubs are opening.
Highway 50 and the narrow dams over the Indian River are clogged again for hours when the onlookers set up their folding chairs to target the next rocket launch with binoculars and telephoto lenses.
And on the anniversary of the moonload of 1969, the “Space Coast” once again indulges in old glamor. There has already been an astronaut parade, an “Apollo open air concert”, panel discussions about “Women in Space” and “The Future of Space” and a gala at the Kennedy Space Center. The anniversary will be “a big deal,” says Malik.
Pat Christian, meanwhile, will likely be back in her front yard or down by the water on Sunday evening. The next SpaceX rocket, a Falcon 9, with supplies, equipment and materials for the International Space Station, is scheduled to launch at 7:32 p.m.
“There is nothing better,” she says.