CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – The crowds were packed along that same stretch of beach, cameras ready. Their eyes trained on the site that sent men to the moon 50 years ago but had now been reborn as the perch for another powerful rocket ready to fly.
The scene here last month was at once familiar and nostalgic, the past revived. But it was also altogether different. The rocket on the pad, the Falcon Heavy, was developed not by NASA but by a private company, SpaceX.
Many in the crowd weren’t born when Walter Cronkite narrated the lunar landing for millions and this stretch of coastline held a sacrosanct spot in the national consciousness. Instead, in the years since the Apollo era, the Cape had become a symbol of the abandoned dreams and diminished ambitions that ultimately led to the retirement of the space shuttle eight years ago and the end of human spaceflight from U.S. soil.
Now, though, the Space Coast is coming back.
A host of companies have laid claim to the old government launchpads. Buildings left vacant have been torn down or rebuilt. And the Cape is once again on the verge of sending humans back to space for the first time since 2011, the crescendo of a new, reinvigorated space age that many hope will restore the flag-waving pride of a bygone era.
As new life is being breathed back into this venerable coastline, the resurrection is coming in fits and starts, and in an entirely new form that is far more unstable and unpredictable than the one infused by government cash in the 1960s.
Today, the new space age is built on the fortunes of private enterprise, subject to the whims of the economy. And like the next chapter of America’s grand adventure in space, the future of the Space Coast is far from guaranteed.
Having seen the devastation that can come when a town reliant on a single industry buckles, local leaders have gone to great lengths to try to diversify their economy. They’ve put in special taxing districts and offered incentives to woo all sorts of businesses to create a better sense of stability.
But this is a place where kids go to Astronaut High School, where the area code, 321, is designed to mimic the launch countdown and reminders of the Space Age are everywhere, including monuments to astronauts and streets named Apollo Road and Tranquility Boulevard.
This is where the Space Age was born, with heroes named John Glenn, Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride. This is where the crowds crammed the beaches before launch, counting down in unison, and captured the world’s imagination.
And then it didn’t.
The question now is: Can it again?
At the dawn of the Space Age, this swampy stretch of coastline quickly became a thriving town. Fueled by the Cold War to beat the Soviet Union to the moon, the population soared with engineers and rocket scientists. Astronauts with the “right stuff” trained by running on the beach during the day and partied at night on the Cocoa Beach strip full of jazz clubs and restaurants.
It was “a glamorous honky-tonk town with young girls twisting in bars, gamblers playing poker upstairs, lots of noise,” Gay Talese wrote in The New York Times in 1965.
“It was total excitement,” said Roy Tharpe, 78, who grew up in the area and started working for NASA in 1963. “It seemed like we were launching rockets every three or four days – and they would explode all the time.”
If the Cape had a cathedral, it was Launch Complex 39A.
Built for the Apollo missions, its spire stood more than 500 feet tall and launched the Apollo astronauts to the moon in July 1969 on a Saturn V rocket so powerful it felt like an earthquake.
After Apollo, 39A was reborn as the host for space shuttle launches. But when the shuttle program was shuttered after a 30-year run, the launch site started rusting away in the salt air, joining the many other abandoned pads that dot the Cape like the ruins of a once-great civilization.
At the peak of the recession, the unemployment rate in Brevard County, where the Space Coast is largely based, spiked to 12 percent. The real estate market plunged. The median price for single-family homes fell from nearly $250,000 in 2007 to less than $100,000 by 2011.
“What we didn’t anticipate was that (the shuttle retirement) would coincide with the recession – the deepest, longest recession,” said Lynda Weatherman, president and chief executive of the Space Coast Economic Development Commission. “I saw the numbers, and it was bad. And Florida was a bad place, and Brevard was particularly bad, especially for the housing markets. So we got clobbered.”
By 2013, maintenance on pad 39A was costing NASA $100,000 a month and even a spokesman admitted at the time that the launchpad had “not been kept up.” Since the facility is on the National Register of Historic Places, it could not be torn down. NASA was desperate to find someone to use it – even a startup company that improbably was leading the commercialization of space.
SpaceX, the California venture founded by Elon Musk, was looking for a new launchpad and won the rights to take over the site. The company had secured contracts from NASA to carry cargo to the International Space Station and was winning back the commercial launch contracts that had gone overseas. With a growing manifest, and perhaps a quixotic faith in the future, SpaceX was looking to expand.
Others soon followed.
Blue Origin, founded by Jeff Bezos, had made a last-minute bid to lay claim to 39A, touching off a feud with Musk’s SpaceX. But without a rocket capable of flying from the site, Blue Origin was rebuffed. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Instead, it set its sights on another fading relic, launchpad 36, just down the road. Home to 145 launches, including the Mariner missions, which sent probes deep into the solar system, it, too, was wasting away. In 2015, Blue Origin reached a deal to take it over for the new rocket it was developing, called New Glenn.
“The pad had stood silent for more than 10 years – too long,” Bezos said at the time. “We can’t wait to fix that.”
Blue Origin has also built a massive rocket manufacturing facility nearby with plans to expand. Across the street, OneWeb, a satellite company that wants to create a worldwide internet system delivered from space, also has a new plant.
Boeing has taken over an old space shuttle processing facility where it is building a spacecraft designed to fly NASA astronauts to space from another nearby launchpad.
And NASA is developing a massive rocket, the Space Launch System, that it hopes will help get astronauts to the moon within five years. NASA is scrambling to get its first launch, with the Orion crew capsule built by Lockheed Martin, off the ground next year.
The future of the Space Coast is also being written by the smaller startups beginning to emerge in an industry once dominated by big government programs and military industrial complex contractors.
A San Francisco-based company called Relativity, founded by former employees from Blue Origin and SpaceX, is working on a rocket that’s built entirely by 3D printing.
The goal is to be able to launch small satellites quickly and affordably. Recently, the company signed an agreement to take over the Cape’s launchpad 16.
Next door, at launchpad 20, another startup, Firefly, intends to launch the rockets it plans to build at a nearby facility.
Taken as a whole, the activity is helping NASA fulfill its goals of turning the Kennedy Space Center from a government-dominated facility to one with multiple tenants that showcases a new space economy.
“When you consider that in all of human history, only three nations have sent humans to space: the United States, Russia and China,” said Robert Cabana, the director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. “Today, there are several U.S. companies building space vehicles to take humans to space.”
Outside the gates of the Kennedy Space Center, developers are building residential communities up and down the coast. The unemployment rate dropped to below 4 percent this year. The tax base has bloomed with monthly taxable sales rebounding from a low of nearly $450 million in 2010 to over $850 million last year. And housing prices are back where they were before the recession.
The coast was known first and foremost “as a launch site,” said Weatherman, the head of the local economic development commission. “But we knew we could do more than that.”
The city of Titusville put out a video recently highlighting all the development going on across the town: an 18,000-square-foot day care center, a 170-unit subdivision, a new Hyatt and a new Marriott.
The Miracle City Mall, torn down after the recession, has been rebuilt as a new shopping center, with a new Harley-Davidson dealership. Nearby, there’s a trendy new pub that serves fancy cocktails like the “creamsicle fizz.”
“We got our very own Starbucks,” said Jim Hale, who works as a volunteer with the Air Force Space and Missile Museum here. “That was big. ... Now everything is new again.”
In the end, the double blow of the loss of the shuttle program and the recession was devastating, leaving streets filled with empty buildings. But it was not as bad as it could have been.
“We were preparing for a Category 5 hurricane,” said Robin Fisher, a former county commissioner. “We got a Category 3.”
By the time the shuttle program was ending, a new commercial space industry was starting to take form. It was unclear what its future was or how successful it would be. But there was an enthusiasm surrounding it, and local officials embraced it.
“That was the second act for space in our county,” Weatherman said.
Still, space is a risky business. While many new entrants are trying to make their mark on the Cape, not all of them will survive.
And for all of the success stories here, there have been missteps. SpaceX has had two rockets explode, one destroying a pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Then, just recently, one of its spacecraft blew up during an engine test, sending a huge plume of smoke over the Cape.
NASA has turned over a few facilities to private companies that showed promise but ultimately faltered.
“Not everything worked,” said Cabana, the director of the Kennedy Space Center. Some “lost contracts they thought they were going to get, and the bottom line was they were unsuccessful.”
There is a lot of excitement and enthusiasm for the commercial space industry. The investment money is pouring in. New companies seem to pop up every day. But some may be reminded of the old maxim: The quickest way to become a millionaire in space is to start out as a billionaire.
They had packed the beaches once again. This time for the launch of the Falcon Heavy, the most powerful rocket in the world currently in operation.
At liftoff, it christened pad 39A on a warm Thursday evening in April, thundering away on a towering pillow of smoke.
On the beaches, the crowds came not just for the launch, but a bit of rocket artistry unimaginable a generation ago.
Instead of ditching its rocket boosters into the ocean after flight, SpaceX flies them back so they can be reused – a bit of aerial acrobatics the company said helps lower the cost of spaceflight.
On this day, both side boosters flew back to one of the newest structures on the Cape: a pair of landing pads. The crowds craned their necks skyward to watch the boosters touching down in unison, twin sonic booms announcing their arrival.
Hale, the Air Force museum volunteer, watched from a nearby park with his wife, awestruck, as this new chapter evoked a memory of the old – and a question: “Where is Walter Cronkite when you need him?”