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.