kennedy-space-center-and-cape-canaveral-air-station-fla292If you’ve never seen a launch at Cape Canaveral you’ve missed something: the sight of the giant space shuttle hurtling into the sky is stirring. But if you want to see one you’d better hurry. NASA is phasing out the aging shuttle fleet in September, 2010 and will be transitioning to a new vehicle that will take us back to the moon.

But the new vehicle won’t be ready before 2015, at the earliest, and in the meantime we will have no access to the heavens other than by hitching a ride with our Russian partners.

As a 20-year resident of Cocoa Beach, I’ll miss being able to walk out in my yard and watch the shuttle leaping into orbit from a launch pad less than 15 miles from my doorstep. The night launches are particularly impressive, with the sky lighting up almost as if the sun were rising from that pad.

As inspiring as those scenes are, I admit I’ve long held a conflicted attitude toward the shuttle. I think it is an amazing engineering marvel, but I believe cheaper, expendable launch rockets would’ve been a far smarter, more economical strategy. But I’m also very worried about the abrupt death of the shuttle program.

Relying on Russia is worrisome; not just an issue of national pride, but one of national security, at least to a limited degree, and most definitely one of plain common sense. Putin’s Russia is no longer a very democratic place, and he’s already shown he’s determined to challenge us in ways that threaten a revival of the Cold War. To depend on him for our access to space leaves us in a bad position. At the very least, he’ll probably start gouging us, knowing we’ll pay what he demands because we have no alternative. To put ourselves in that position seems dumb.

Perhaps more worrisome is that the shuttle’s farewell may also throw many of my neighbors out of work, including at least four guys on my street. One of them, in particular, is an incredibly talented fix-it man. He’s no engineer, has no advanced degree, but he can literally fix anything. When his 16-year-old son needed a car, he bought a junker and completely rebuilt it himself, inside and out. Recently the transmission went out and instead of taking it to the shop my neighbor replaced it himself, over the weekend, sweating under the beast in his driveway.

There’s a huge leap, of course, from replacing a transmission to building a spaceship, but my neighbor is exactly the kind of guy I want working, hands-on, on our nation’s space fleet. Losing him, and thousands of others like him, would be a tremendous blow.

Estimates of the coming layoffs at Cape Canaveral range from 3,000 to 6,000, with a firm number still elusive. NASA promises to keep as many of our space workers as possible, mindful that their specialized skills are invaluable. But once laid-off, these men and women can’t sit around waiting to be rehired. They have mortgages to pay and kids to put through college. Many of them are already taking technical and college courses and are looking for a place to land. A lot of them might prefer to eventually return to NASA if they get laid off, but that’s doubtful. If they find solid jobs elsewhere after the shuttle’s demise, they may not come back, especially after getting burned by being laid off.

I have no doubts that NASA is in many ways a blundering government bureaucracy filled with frightful amounts of waste and inefficiency. But I’m convinced it has also been responsible for some of our nation’s proudest and most important achievements, with our venture to the moon a truly remarkable feat. I also believe the drive to invent and miniaturize new machines and techniques for space flight helped spark much of the high-tech computer boom that has so radically transformed our lives and economy over the past several decades.

During his campaign, President Obama promised to make efforts to extend the shuttle program and avert some of the layoffs, but his new budget does not divert from the shut-down schedule his predecessor put into motion. With the billions we’re spending to try to stimulate the economy and create jobs, I can’t believe our new president won’t be smart and save these space industry jobs. They are exactly the kinds of jobs he says he wants to create: high-tech, knowledge-based, advanced research and development that will lead our nation into the future.

I admit I have a personal stake in this: the last thing we need here is a whole new crop of foreclosure signs on top of the thousands that have sprouted around Central Florida in the past two years because of the mortgage mess. But the nation has something vital at stake here, and losing those space workers isn’t going to be the same as losing a car plant or a textile mill, as painful as those losses are for their communities. It would be a big mistake for the nation’s long-term interests. And in the current climate, what’s an extra few billion a year for NASA?

It’s not chump change, but it would be smart money invested wisely.

###
Mike Williams

Mike Williams

With roots in Mississippi and Alabama, Mike Williams worked for newspapers across the South for 27 years. After earning a degree in American Studies at Amherst College, he worked for Alabama newspapers in Baldwin County, Montgomery and Birmingham, followed by stints at the Miami Herald and The Atlanta Constitution. His last job was as a foreign correspondent for the Cox Newspaper chain. He now splits his time between Florida and the North Carolina mountains. His interests include race relations, history, Southern folk culture and the environment.