July 5th, 2011
09:53 AM ET

A space town's long goodbye

When the space shuttle blasts off for the last time on July 8, it will leave behind a 30-year legacy of exploration, and the most dedicated cheerleaders the space program has ever known. In Titusville, Florida, a small town just across the river from Cape Canaveral, generations have relied on manned rocket launches to bring the nation to their doorstep.

"We have a population of 43,000, and there'll be several hundred thousand people here, so our population triples or quadruples," said Laura Lee Thompson, the owner of the Dixieland Crossroads restaurant, a favorite for locals and visiting space enthusiasts alike.

Titusville is just 15 miles from the launch pad; no place on Earth has a better view of the NASA launches. "You take this boardwalk and go straight ahead, that's the launch pad," said resident Bob Socks, gesturing just off the Titusville shore and across the Indian River. When the shuttle launches, said Titusville Mayor James Tulley Jr., "It's spectacular, it really is."

The role of Titusville as the Yankee Stadium of space flight, however, predates the shuttle program. Titusville has been saying goodbye to crews of astronauts for nearly half a century, since the days of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions.

When man landed on the moon, no place was prouder. Several monuments have been built in Titusville to honor not only those who have gone into space, but also those who put them there, like City Manager Mark Ryan's parents.

"They're retired IBMers. My father worked on the instrument unit for the Apollo rockets, and my mother was in the quality control, records-keeping unit for IBM as well," he said.

No other place has shared the space community's grief in quite the same way, either. When tragedy struck in the Apollo 1 fire, or the shuttle disasters years later, the people of Titusville mourned.

"We grieved. The whole city did. It was quite awful. Like some member of the family had died," said Pastor Ray Johnson.

"The Challenger hit us hard for three years," said Socks. "The unemployment rate went up. People were laid off, and it had a dramatic effect here and for people like myself. I was an eyewitness to Challenger; I was standing on the river and watching it. There are times when I look out over the river and I see that same cloud configuration, or the sky is as blue as it was that morning, and I flash back."

They have shared in the work and triumph, too.

When danger threatened, as it did on Apollo 13, Titusville was there.

Marty Winkle said he was home asleep when the telephone rang. "We had a problem on Apollo 13 on the lunar module, on the command module, and I explained what I thought we could do," he said.

More than anything else, though, Titusville's people have watched each and every launch and welcomed the thousands who have come to watch with them. David Hamids is a science teacher whose family opened the Moonlight Drive In restaurant when the launches first started.

"We definitely feel the effects, the positive effects of the space shuttle launches, there is no doubt about that," he said.

Even after the last shuttle goes into orbit, there will still be hundreds of NASA employees nearby, and unmanned rocket launches. But everyone knows without astronauts, the crowds will not be as big.

"Our community is going to lose the gift of hundreds of thousands of hotel rooms that we didn't really have to work very hard to fill," said Thompson.

With the last launch, the town's identity will slip a little further into the past.

"For me, it's probably going to be a lot of joy and a lot of sorrow all at the same time," said Socks, who knows when the tourists depart this time, all that will be left is a suddenly, shockingly empty sky.

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Filed under: Florida • Shuttle • Space
soundoff (52 Responses)
  1. allan

    The problem with the shuttle program is that it limited us to lower earth orbit and actually kept us from further space exploration, it was good for the eighties but we should've moved farther along decades ago. If we hadn't limited ourselves for so long we probably already would've had a manned mission to Mars.

    July 5, 2011 at 7:55 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Legal Alien

    Finally it's over, so now we can move forward, with more advanced spacecraft! When i saw Space Oddysey 20yrs ago, i expected more from humans passed 2010 ;) Please cut military 'Godzilla' budget spending in half and give 25bil a year to NASA. Thank you!

    July 6, 2011 at 7:12 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Juan A. Sanchez

    En este pueblo se reune la gente para ver los lanzamientos desde la plataforma de despegue en Cavo Canaveral en Florida

    July 7, 2011 at 12:27 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Sarah

    I love Laurilee Thompson!!! She's simply amazing to so many of us!!!

    July 8, 2011 at 10:06 am | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Susan

    Space Shulttle Atlantis mission makes one last trip into the final frontier.The space shutle is a American Icon. We saw man walk on the moon..spcae station..This is true American history. As the spcae shuttle mission is no more due to ferderal government shuts down NASA. Sad day for all of America and the world. God Bless The Space shuttle Atlantis and NASA. As space shuttle atlantis blasts off into space the American Flag waves with grace.

    July 8, 2011 at 12:15 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  6. juanita

    Sad to see the shuttle program end. I was in that generation of kids in school in 1957 when Sputnik launched and the "space race" began. So many kids got excited about science because of it. I know I did. I went on to get a BS in chemistry, and in my senior year at college I was privileged to have a summer internship at NASA at the Lewis Research Center in Cleveland. I will never forget the wonders I saw there, and the great people I worked with. I hope NASA can continue with the exploration of space.

    July 8, 2011 at 12:50 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Deborah

    I moved here in 1958 – my dad worked for NASA – I have seen every launch! I worked at the space center for 11 years and was totally surrounded by the technology and vision. I will miss the launches, but feel confident that space flight is not "dead" and we will continue with our quest. Godspeed Atlantis!

    July 10, 2011 at 5:23 pm | Report abuse | Reply
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