Florida's `space coast' rises with shuttle. Towns around launch site are linked with space program

The launch of space shuttle Discovery has been imbued with an almost religious significance in these parts - something like redemption and rebirth. The Florida ``space coast'' has seen far worse times than the lean years since Challenger exploded overhead. The 1975 bust, after the end of the Apollo program, meant 18 percent unemployment and one of every three houses for sale.

But the Challenger accident took a different kind of toll. In a place where nearly everyone takes space personally, the accident brought guilt, the slow recovery brought frustration.

``The community was devastated by it,'' says Dale Heaton, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church here.

Joe Catrambone, vice-president of the Titusville Chamber of Commerce, compares the atmosphere after Challenger to that following President Kennedy's assassination in 1963.

The excitement surrounding the Discovery mission has been palpable, but the optimism has run decidedly cautious.

``No one quite dares cross his fingers,'' John Cartwright, managing editor of the Titusville Monitor, said this week. ``That would be a visible lack of faith.''

On the surface, the space coast is another strip of the Florida of motels, trailer parks, and tract houses.

But people here are true believers. The Knights of Columbus chapter in Titusville is titled Our Lady of Space. Children at Christa McAuliffe and Ronald McNair elementary schools leave class to watch launches from the schoolyards.

Locals profess a certainty that the march into space is so compelling, so bound up with America's leading place in the world, that the effort cannot be abandoned.

Excitement has taken root here over the commercial possibilities of space. But some avow that exploring the heavens must be more than commercial satellites and ``star wars.''

All along, says Titusville mayor Truman Scarborough, ``We had a feeling that everything was going to be all right, that is, that there was a need for America to be involved in the space program.''

The real concern along the space coast - more than just an economic concern - is that the United States could lose its will to lead the world into space. Mayor Scarborough calls it a ``terrible fear of the loss of opportunity to achieve.''

Michael Dukakis and George Bush have both expressed support for space station deployment and other elements of the US space program. Yet the candidates have left space boosters uneasy from what Mr. Scarborough calls a ``fearful silence.''

The economy, as well as morale, has begun to revive since the Challenger failure. It was never as bad as people feared who recalled the post-Apollo bust.

About 2,000 people were laid off from the shuttle program during 1986. Unemployment here in Brevard County peaked that October at 7.3 percent. Most laid-off workers have long since been absorbed back into the space industry.

Overall, the accident meant one year of little growth in the local economy. The uncertainty hit the housing business more dramatically than others, however.

``When the last shuttle blew up, a lot of people sold their houses and left town,'' says Phil Gribbons, sales and marketing director of Centex Homes. ``Our Titusville developments just stopped selling.''

The last six months have seen some market revival, and Centex bought two more tracts to develop. New housing permits, however, don't begin to approach pre-Challenger levels.

Something else happened since the accident, however. Two and a half million people visited the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Spaceport USA attraction here last year, and new attendance records are being set monthly. Tourism rose 24 percent last year, according the the Brevard Economic Development Council, even while it fell for Florida overall.

The interest is reflected in national polls as renewed support for the space program. Polling by Northern Illinois University's Public Opinion Laboratory before the accident, just afterward, and following the public hearings and reports in the spring of 1986, found that public support for the space program surged and remained high.

Along with some 5,000 journalists at the Discovery launch, Mr. Catrambone expected 250,000 tourists - who were expected to send $43 million rippling into the local economy.

The space coast has spread out its economic base, notes Kay Jackson, director of the Economic Development Council. ``That does not minimize the importance of the shuttle or the reemergence of the space program,'' she says.

``It's who we are. Almost everything in the county is linked back to the space program.''

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