How the hub of space exploration can hold onto its status in a post-space shuttle age

On the near picture-perfect morning of May 16, hundreds of thousands of people gathered in the vicinity of Kennedy Space Center to witness a historic and, for many, bittersweet moment. Among the crowd were all types of people – families, politicians, engineers and former astronauts — all watching with anticipation as Space Shuttle Endeavor prepared for launch, marking the shuttle’s final mission before retirement.

The countdown began. The engines roared. The solid rocket boosters ignited. Endeavor had liftoff. Mere minutes later, the shuttle of grandeur faded into a tiny flicker in the sky to the many spectators watching below.

As the crowd dispersed, many people drove long distances or boarded planes to carry on their lives in other parts of the country. Others, however, simply walked indoors from their backyards, schoolyards and local beaches — places where time and time again they have watched in awe as space shuttles launched from the Cape into the cosmos.

To these people, the end of the space shuttle program not only represents the end of a defining era for the country, but also the end of a program that, in many ways, represents the identity of their hometown.

“The space shuttle program has left a rich legacy for our area. For the thousands of workers in our area, the space shuttle program is their program; the orbiters are like a part of their family. Theirs is a strong sense of ownership and connection to the space shuttle program,” says Bill Moore, chief operations officer of Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

Perhaps no one understands this sentiment better than Paul Joseph Lucas, a retired Air Force master sergeant who began working at Kennedy Space Center in 1987 and retired in 2007. The duration of Lucas’s career was spent as a senior technical specialist for United Space Alliance leading a group directly involved with all aspects of shuttle processing — from ground support systems to solid rocket booster assembly to orbiter processing.

“I have often said that it was amazing that as many shuttle missions launched as they did over the 30 years of the program,” says Lucas, who resides in Palm Bay. “There are so many measurements and events that must happen exactly each launch; it’s a miracle 134 launches have actually made it.

“It was the chance of a lifetime to become involved in this program,” he adds.

Like many other Space Coast residents, the end has brought mixed emotions for Lucas. While he believes it is time to retire the space shuttles because of their outdated technology, he is fearful that without manned spaceflight, space exploration (and thus, the Space Coast) may fade from the nation’s interest. His concerns range from the displaced workforce seeking employment in other industries in other parts of the country, to the time it will take to design and build the next generation of manned spacecraft.

Winston Scott shares these concerns. A former astronaut, Scott agrees the time has come to replace the aging space shuttles, but he is uneasy about the complete abandonment of the shuttle program without a replacement vehicle ready for launch. Moving forward, Scott believes that if the Space Coast is to hold onto its identity as the leader in space exploration, it will need to overcome competition from other states, such as New Mexico and California. “As private and commercial space launch companies grow and gain larger shares of the space launch business, it will be increasingly difficult for the Space Coast to maintain its exclusivity,” he warns.

Still, Scott looks toward the future with optimism – albeit cautious optimism — but optimism nonetheless. “If and when NASA gets back into the business of space launches to the moon, asteroids, Mars and beyond, then the Space Coast, for a variety of reasons, will again be known as the place for space,” he says.

He imagines the development of a “true space exploration vehicle” designed for heavy lift, long-range missions.

“The Space Coast is going to have to lead by truly exploring space, and this means going beyond Earth’s orbit,” adds Scott. “Exploration means exactly what the science-fiction writers meant when they described ‘going where no man has gone before!’”

It’s this inspiration – the works of science-fiction books, television (“Star Trek” in particular) and movies – that partially led Scott to a fascination with the possibilities of space exploration. He also was motivated by events such as Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon and the long-duration missions of Skylab. “I can remember watching Alan Shepard’s first space launch and being awed by the event itself and the attention given to it by the world. I suppose, however, the most inspirational event was Neil’s first moonwalk,” he says.

Scott eventually followed in his heroes’ footsteps, flying as a mission specialist on STS-72 in 1996 and STS-87 in 1997 with over 24 days in space. Today, he serves as the dean of the College of Aeronautics at Florida Tech in Melbourne, guiding hopeful members of the next generation of space explorers.

“I tell them to prepare themselves,” he says. “I tell them that the desire to explore space will never die, and that even though our space exploration program is declining at the moment, this decline is only temporary. The opportunity to explore space will come again, and they, the next generation, need to be prepared when it arrives.”

Inspiring the next generation of space explorers is something that’s also on Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex’s radar screen. The complex is undergoing a 10-year redevelopment plan; its marquee element being a permanent display for Space Shuttle Atlantis, which will take up retirement residence there.

“The new home for Atlantis should be a major draw to attract new and repeat visitors to discover the space shuttle program from a new perspective. During the first year the home is open, more than 200,000 additional visitors to our area will visit to see Atlantis as never before. Visitors will be able to get very close to the orbiter, so close they can almost touch it,” explains Moore. “I hope that through the new orbiter display, our community will continue to be identified as a leader in space exploration. Atlantis and Kennedy Space Center are symbols of the success of NASA’s space exploration program.”

Other major concepts being developed include moving the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame from its current location to the main campus. Artifacts from the Early Space Exploration exhibit will be incorporated into the display, as well as Astronaut Encounter Theater. The front gate entrance will move to the Rocket Garden. The Kennedy Space Center Tour experience will be enhanced and updated as the NASA Kennedy Space Center story evolves. Another key element includes the creation of an observation tower at the Apollo/Saturn V Center, offering guests a new perspective of the Kennedy Space Center launch complex.

“As we embark on the new master plan, we will engage guests of all ages in the past, not just as a proud history, but also as a living legacy of heroic achievements by real people who remain relevant to a 21st-century audience,” says Moore. “We will present the current Kennedy Space Center as a place where groundbreaking technological advances are in progress every day. We will inspire new audiences with the potential of NASA’s future as integrally linked to the advancement of science, technology and humankind.”

It’s no secret that the Space Coast has exploited its claim to fame since the space race took off in the ’60s. Since that time, numerous public schools have been named in honor of space shuttles, rockets and former astronauts. The local area code – 3-2-1 – was selected to reflect each launch’s countdown to liftoff. Countless businesses have staked their territory on the Space Coast because it’s the home of NASA’s launch headquarters. Kennedy Space Center has become one of Central Florida’s biggest tourism draws. The list goes on.

So, what happens next?

While the future remains uncertain, there is one thing virtually every local can agree on: The identity of the Space Coast as the hub of space exploration should not be lost. And in order for the area to hold onto this identity, it must balance the achievements, history and nostalgia of it all, while increasing its competitive spirit with regard to future space exploration endeavors.

“We, as a community, must endeavor to continue to communicate that the Space Coast is open for business and well positioned to do great things for manned and non-manned missions,” says Moore. “Our region has great talent in its workforce, and the launch facilities to do great things.

“As we celebrate the success of the space shuttle program, we are looking forward to the next chapter in space exploration,” he continues. “The space program will always have a strong identity with the Space Coast.”

In the 1980s, Florida tourism officials tagged Brevard County as the Space Coast—a perfect choice. This small strip of land already had a rich space heritage and was preparing to launch into even more exciting horizons. Dianne Marcum, author of “Cape Canaveral, Cocoa Beach and Florida’s Space Coast,” (available at offers a timeline of events that led the Space Coast to earn its moniker.

• In 1935, the U.S. Navy established Banana River Naval Air Station (later Patrick Air Force Base) on a strip of land south of Cocoa Beach. From this vantage point, World War II bombers patrolled offshore waters in search of German subs armed with torpedoes.

• Following the war, Canaveral Air Force Station became home base for America’s rocket program. On July 24, 1950, crowds lined the beaches and cheered as Bumper 8 broke through gravity’s hold and soared 15 miles up and out—the first small step on an endless path through the cosmos.

• Soon NASA was in a race to the moon. They established their Launch Operations Center (later Kennedy Space Center) alongside Canaveral Air Force Station. Workers thronged to the area, making Brevard the fastest-growing county in America during the 1960s. News stories following Mercury, Gemini and Apollo flights were seen around the world.

• On April 12, 1981, Commander John Young piloted shuttle Columbia into the heavens and inaugurated a new era of manned space exploration. Shuttles have carried the Hubble telescope into orbit, and delivered modules and supplies to the International Space Station. For three decades, millions of visitors have traveled here to experience the thrill of a launch.

• The dream continues. Powerful rockets push satellites into orbit, enabling high-tech communications and surveillance. New space adventures are moving from the drawing pad to our launch pads. The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, sharing the story of America’s space program, is an international travel destination.