Florida’s “Space Coast”—a collection of launch pads and rocket factories in Brevard County, on the state’s east coast—has been a focal point for human space flight since the 1950s. It’s the spot from which the Apollo 11 astronauts ascended to the Moon in 1969. It’s where the US launched its first satellite (1958), astronaut (1961), Mars rover (1996), and space station component (1998). Between 1981 and 2011, it sent the space shuttle into orbit 135 times.
But when the US pulled the plug on the shuttle program in 2011, the Space Coast—and the residents and businesses of Brevard, who depend on the economic activity their local spaceport generates—fell on hard times. The loss of the local launch industry sank the region into a depression, until private space firms began setting up shop in the same facilities that used to house NASA operations in the Space Coast’s golden age.
Today, the Space Coast is making a comeback fueled by a flurry of launch activity from the nascent US space industry.
The end of the space shuttle program rocks the Space Coast
The end of the shuttle program couldn’t have come at a worse time for Brevard County. The region was still reeling from the 2008 financial crisis, which had slashed local home prices by more than half and sent the unemployment rate above 12%. After NASA wrapped up its final shuttle mission on July 21, it laid off local contractors and mothballed its launchpads. An estimated 30,000 workers lost their jobs.
Losing the shuttle launches was as much of a spiritual blow as an economic one. Local residents send their kids to Astronaut High School and drive down Apollo Road. Their phone numbers bear the area code 321 to emulate launch countdowns. Statues of famous astronauts line the streets. But after 2011, the launchpads at Kennedy Space Center and the Cape Canaveral Air Force Base went quiet. The region, which had little more than orange groves and beaches before NASA came to town, drifted listlessly without a clear purpose. The excitement of US astronaut launches had been exported to Kazakhstan, where Russian Soyuz rockets flew Americans to the space station for $75 million a pop.
NASA pivots to operating a private spaceport
After 2011, the Kennedy Space Center reinvented itself as a commercial spaceport, with NASA leasing out launch facilities to more than 90 private businesses. The most prominent entrant is SpaceX, which leased the launchpad used in the Apollo 11 mission from NASA in 2014, refurbished it, and put it to use for the first time in 2017. In May 2020, astronauts once again departed Brevard County bound for the International Space Station—this time, on a SpaceX Falcon rocket.
Other industry stalwarts like Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance have also leased nearby pads, as have startups like Firefly and Relativity. Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and the satellite internet company OneWeb have clustered rocket and satellite factories nearby. This year alone, the Space Coast has already seen 37 launches.
Private industry has been attracted to the Space Coast for many of the same reasons NASA was back in the 1950s. It’s relatively close to the equator, which means the Earth spins a little faster. In Cape Canaveral, the ground moves east at about 914 miles (1470 km) per hour, which gives rockets an extra boost, allowing them to carry less fuel. Plus, the Atlantic Ocean lies to the east, meaning that any falling rocket parts will splash into the ocean rather than cratering a populated area. And after decades of government investment in the site, it has a level of existing launch infrastructure and a specialized local workforce that would be expensive and time consuming to recreate elsewhere.
Private rocket launches fuel a Space Coast comeback
The return of space flight has sparked a renaissance in Brevard County. Developers are building new homes and businesses at a rapid clip. Houses have recovered their pre-financial crisis values and taxable sales have nearly doubled. The local unemployment rate is now below 4%, despite the pandemic recession. Rocket launch tourism helped bail the county out after covid-19 outbreaks dried up cruise ship revenue; when SpaceX launched its first manned mission in May 2020, the Space Coast Office of Tourism estimated that 220,000 visitors came and spent $44 million.
The Space Coast has hitched its fortunes to its new private partners, which carries its own risks. Space is an expensive, uncertain industry. Some of the scores of businesses that have set up shop in Brevard County will surely fail, and it remains to be seen whether a couple of consolidating winners will be able to establish a sustainable revenue model in the long run. But for now, investment is flowing freely, dozens of companies are building and testing rockets, and the ground beneath Brevard County is once again rumbling with a busy schedule of orbital launches.