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. Philip

    Maybe we can convert the space-shuttles landing strip into the world's largest tennis court? (it's the flattest surface on earth) What will become of it? It'll probably dry-up and blow away, like this small town.

    July 5, 2011 at 10:33 am | Report abuse |
    • Scottish Mama

      Phillip we can always bring it back in another better form when the economy gets better and we see how the private shuttles do. No tax breaks for them though.

      July 5, 2011 at 11:09 am | Report abuse |
  2. Scottish Mama

    Phillip they did not post my idea of having an area where the private sector launches and lands there. Where excited visitors can go for rides in retired shuttles.I also put hangers on the ourskirts and a museum for the future of flights and new inventions. It was to lift your spirits, but they did not post it.

    July 5, 2011 at 11:36 am | Report abuse |
  3. Philip

    When "the economy" gets better? What about US? One in six American families recieve food stamps now. Fory-dollar per hour jobs that were "lost" during this current market manipulation have been replaced with "newly created" jobs that pay less than half of that. Any pay raises have been offset by higher gas prices, etc. I think that we are in worse shape than our economy is, and it is we who need to shape-up...not some animal we call "the economy".

    July 5, 2011 at 12:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • Scottish Mama

      Phillip I assume some of these well educated NASA workers will go to work for the private sector jobs created or start their own consulting business' to help their incomes so I do not believe all will be lost although they may have to relocate. Yes I believe the economy will come back if we demand it. If it means revamping our government with all new people and new parties so be it. We will let them know we mean business. Sorry if I put you in a worse frame of mind, not my intent.

      July 5, 2011 at 12:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jazzzzzzz

      @ Ssottish Mama... Not Philip @ 12:10
      Philip view point is no were in near that. He'll tell ya.
      hope everything is well in your corner of the world?

      July 5, 2011 at 1:05 pm | Report abuse |
  4. banasy

    This is sad.
    Mush like the cities built up around the steel mills, another ghost town has been born.
    Nothing lasts forever....

    July 5, 2011 at 12:11 pm | Report abuse |
  5. James

    Hey Mr President–Congratulations on Shutting Down NASA. Now we have another 10,000+, well educated people unemployed as well as all the solders that are mustering out to no jobs–Way to go.–What are you thinking ???

    July 5, 2011 at 12:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • petercha

      Amen, James. Obama said he wanted to create jobs, but then he went and cancelled the Constellation program. I guess he must hate progress.

      July 5, 2011 at 12:59 pm | Report abuse |
  6. banasy

    Philip:
    She was trying to:
    1) Cheer you up, and
    2) Offer a solution.

    Kvetching doesn't do anything but make the kvetcher feel either momentarily better, or sink into a worse depression.

    Please, lighten up a bit, Phil.
    All is not gloom and doom, and I hate to see you so down.

    July 5, 2011 at 12:23 pm | Report abuse |
  7. banasy

    @James:
    GW Bush announced and implemented this in 2004.
    How is this Obama's fault?

    July 5, 2011 at 12:30 pm | Report abuse |
  8. banasy

    And James, don't ever blame Obama on the economy or the wars, this is only a follow up on your dear President Bush. I'm tired of listening to your complaints. Get a life! Moron

    July 5, 2011 at 12:38 pm | Report abuse |
  9. banasy

    @James: you are so ignorant, NASA is NOT shutting down, soon you will see their new space vehicle, idiot.

    July 5, 2011 at 12:44 pm | Report abuse |
  10. banasy

    Did not post 12:38, but I did post 12:44

    July 5, 2011 at 12:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • Scottish Mama

      Hi Banasy, I do have a knack for trying to solve the problem, my daughter says sometimes I should just listen cause she is just venting. I tend to solve and go on.

      July 5, 2011 at 12:53 pm | Report abuse |
  11. banasy

    @Scottish: What jobs are you talking about? These people are trained for very high tech industry, or you think they can work at a supermarket. Be real and stop your fantasies, this is a serious problem for you to be joking about. I taught you were smarter.

    July 5, 2011 at 12:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Scottish Mama

      I don't believe this is Banasy but there are private people opening up private business' to do some of the same jobs. If there are 5 competing places they will need 5x the amount of people that work at NASA. And now you are teaching me, freudian slip.

      July 5, 2011 at 12:57 pm | Report abuse |
  12. williwillie

    They could use the runway to create the worlds longest uninterrupted piece of doody! Peope would come see it from miles around. I thinmk that would put them on the map!

    July 5, 2011 at 12:51 pm | Report abuse |
  13. williwillie

    They could all be in the doodie manufacturing business working on my brilliant idea.

    July 5, 2011 at 12:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Scottish Mama

      POOh Pots for plants.

      July 5, 2011 at 12:59 pm | Report abuse |
  14. petercha

    Thanks a lot, Obama, for cancelling the Constellation program. You put a lot of good, hard-working people across America out of a job. Congratulations (note dripping sarcasm).

    July 5, 2011 at 12:54 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Mekell

    We have been here before during the 70's and Reagan borrowed fromt he Fed raising our debt. The interest was actually higher than this current one. We got back then, we'll be back again.

    July 5, 2011 at 12:55 pm | Report abuse |
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