Most towns find it hard to identify the moment they lost their mojo. Titusville, though, can pinpoint its spiral to a very specific date: February 1, 2003. Seven astronauts were killed that day when the Columbia space shuttle, having completed a 16-day orbital mission, disintegrated upon re–entry over the southern United States. A section of foam roughly the size of a small suitcase had broken off from Columbia’s external tank 82 seconds after its January 16 launch, opening a hole in the left wing and leaving it vulnerable to superheated gasses. NASA control had witnessed this accident as it happened, but after assessing the details it was decided that there had been no significant damage—and, in any case, even if there had been, it was unclear that there was anything they could do to correct it.
It wasn’t the first shuttle accident, of course. The Challenger, a tragedy I watched from my first-grade classroom, was probably only read about in history books by kids today. I sat there a little dumbfounded and not fully grasping the situation while my white-haired teacher became overwhelmed with grief. But even the Columbia explosion is ancient to the kinder these days. To a 10-year-old you might as well be talking about the Patty Hearst kidnapping or the sinking of the Bismarck.
It’s hard to know what any of us will remember about October 31, 2014, the day Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo fell to pieces nine miles above the Earth, killing co-pilot Michael Alsbury and leaving his co-worker Peter Siebold on a terrifying plummet towards the Mojave Desert. Perhaps we won’t recall it very much at all: Who knows where they were when a fuel tank for the same craft exploded in 2007 and killed three technicians? Private space travel hasn’t entranced the world in the same way as NASA’s pioneering missions.
Titusville will remember, though. Just 20 miles northwest of Kennedy Space Center in Florida, it used to have a proud nickname: Space City USA. It couldn’t help but be bolted to the dizzying boom of the 1950s and ‘60s, and the local space industry helped create myriad jobs by giving work to nearby aerospace companies. There were so many jobs, in fact, that the local population ballooned from around 6,000 in 1960 to just over 30,000 in a decade.
It wasn’t just aerospace engineers or flyboys who turned up: The flow of rocket-obsessed tourists who breezed through this part of the Sunshine State also kept things bustling. For decades, no other place in America seemed better suited for the name.
Unfortunately, the past 15 years have seen everything dry up in Titusville. The reason? The same one that made it boom.
The loss of Columbia was devastating to the space program, and to Titusville; shuttle missions were immediately halted for two years, and work on the International Space Station also came to a stop. In January 2004, President George W. Bush outlined a “new vision” for NASA, which called for the shuttle program to be retired and manned space explorations to get put on hold. By December 2010, Titusville had one of the nation’s highest unemployment rates, 13.8 percent. Sure, there have been good moments since — the Curiosity rover, which NASA successfully landed on Mars in August 2012, for example — but rovers require a fraction of the manpower of shuttle missions. After all, what is a rover but an intergalactic go-cart?
Driving through Titusville these days, you don’t necessarily get the sense that this is a town hurting from anything. As with any other settlement in Florida, there are some nice places, there are some not-so-nice places, and there are seafood restaurants with gigantic styrofoam shrimp wearing top hats standing outside.
Longtime residents, however, can tell you with acute pain exactly how their hometown has plummeted in the last few years.
“Shoot, I don’t even know what’s going on out there anymore,” says Matt Whiting, a 41-year-old who’s kicked around the area most of his life. He’s watched with dismay the silencing of the once awesome “exploding rockets.” Like many around these parts, he’s connected to a web of people who have been affected by the downturn — an odd uncle who upped and vanished, friends’ parents forced to downsize to trailer living. He gazes at the wall behind the bar we sit in, nursing his beer, a look of resignation on his face.
“The only reason to go out that way now is that…you ever been to that haunted hotel? No? Well, look, I don’t normally believe in that stuff…”
“It’s been difficult,” admits Titusville’s mayor, Jim Tulley, wearily, about his city’s post-shuttle economics. “Maybe not as difficult as when the Apollo programs ended, but…we’ve certainly had to diversify.”
Titusville is not yet Detroit, a city verging on complete decay. It’s still a beautiful walk down the palm tree–dotted Main Street, and, going east, you curve into Indian River Avenue, where a calming view of Kennedy Space Center’s shoreline appears. A squat 1960s-era NASA building stands out on the horizon, sitting awkwardly behind the sunny Florida haze. It has its charm.
And Kennedy Space Center’s visitor complex remains open to the public, where it conducts daily tours of its historic aeronautic compound. For frothing NASA fans, there is still plenty of reason to visit, but with so little going on work-wise at Kennedy now, it’s getting stretched: Earlier this year you could pay $90 for the “Up-Close Mega Tour” of a barely-used launch pad and the vehicle assembly building seems excessive. For just a few dollars more you could gain admission to neighboring Disney World, where Tomorrowland is always up and running.
Even though Titusville’s unemployment figure has dropped down to 6.3 percent, residents aren’t exactly dancing in the streets. Without rocket trails and astronauts, Florida is just a soggy marsh serving as Donald Duck’s backyard.
Yet before the crash there was already a cautious optimism: There are big plans that could lift the city back to the glory days.
The mayor perks up. “It’s really exciting when you stop and think about it,” he enthuses. He’s hoping a combination of private and public space can drag the town back from the brink. “Privatized will be able to launch with more regularity, but NASA can do the more long-range missions that the other companies don’t have the resources for.”
Space Florida, the state’s aerospace development agency, is hoping to construct a new 200-acre launch complex in hopes of attracting privatized space players. But the plan, to build on a serene stretch of land known as Shiloh, has hit trouble from naturalists and outdoorsy campaigners trying to protect its wildlife. Tim Bailey thinks that’s bullshit.
“NASA are the ones who turned Shiloh into a wildlife refuge in the first place,” he tells me, with a wry can you believe these people tone. “It made sense. Otherwise that land would have turned into a strip mall or a trailer park. So all the folks complaining about the poor butterflies…Kennedy’s the reason the butterflies are there.”
Bailey doesn’t have much time for those who get in the space industry’s way. But that’s no surprise: He’s a veteran of numerous aeronautic organizations, a consultant on payload launches, and a board member of Yuri’s Night, the annual global celebration that marks the first manned spaceflight, in 1961. He used to work with ZERO-G, aiding average citizens as they ride the “vomit comet” — the modified Boeing 727 that gives passengers the chance to experience 30 seconds of weightlessness at a time. Animated and gregarious, he tosses aerospace history out like football statistics.
“Florida needs this [proposed spaceport] on their drawing board,” he reaffirms. “Otherwise it’s like, ‘Well, it was nice seeing you in the '60s, Florida. Call us if you feel like catching up.’”
Most Americans didn’t give the foundation of Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic much pause. So, another wacky rich person (an English one, at that!) is trying to live his Space Odyssey dreams. Hey, it was 2004: We were still reeling from seeing Janet Jackson’s breast at the Super Bowl. Branson’s announcement one year later that he had chosen New Mexico as the company’s base was met with equal disinterest. But today it’s 2014, and we need to start paying attention. Spaceport America, a beautifully designed complex nestled 179 miles south of Albuquerque, officially opened for business three years ago, and now it is hosting not only Virgin Galactic, but several other privatized aerospace companies. It is, essentially, America’s first operating commercial space transit hub. Twenty-one suborbital missions have originated from its epic 12,000 foot runway since 2006.
Apparently disturbed by the recent crash, at least 20 of the 700 passengers Richard Branson pre-sold for his company’s first commercial space voyage (earning Virgin $80 million) have begun asking for refunds. Some passengers, however, were considering pulling out long before the crash. Branson’s always had a flair for the dramatic and certainly a lot of success, but for all his genius, Virgin Galactic hasn’t actually produced much — except tragedy.
Many others are attempting to muscle in, but the success rate and growth of each of these facilities has varied: Kodiak, erected on a lush Alaskan island, has managed 16 perfect vertical launches; Clinton-Sherman in western Oklahoma was granted an FAA license for suborbital takeoffs and landings in 2006, but hasn’t managed to get a single craft on the runway.
This isn’t always a reflection of the individual organizations — the rules of commercial space tourism are still being written. Much like the introduction of the automobile into the world of horses and buggies, it’s a touch and go process that requires a willingness to learn on both sides. An FAA inspector once expressed surprise at ZERO-G’s crew for a lack of procedures in place to handle galley fires; once the inspector stopped to catch a breath, a flight member informed him that their suborbital planes don’t even have restrooms, let alone a place to cook chicken.
Tulley, the mayor, is excited by another organization’s prospects for reviving Titusville, though: Elon Musk’s SpaceX. It’s the most successful private company, and a steady schedule of launches, and deals with NASA, other companies, the U.S. military, and several foreign countries, allows it — possibly forces it— to search wherever it can for potential launch areas. That could be good news for Space City.
So far, outside its home state, Musk’s company has had the most success in Florida and Texas. Here in Titusville, local enthusiasm for SpaceX’s endeavors is rising, and many from the town gather whenever a rocket shoots up from Cape Canaveral’s Complex 40. Still, we’re a long way from regular orbital flights anywhere.
Edward Ellegood, a space policy analyst and former Director of Aerospace Development for Embry-Riddle University, doesn’t think space travel will ever happen: Too costly, too unsafe. He sees potential in a different kind of future, a sort of exploration that echoes the past, including a “sustained presence on the Moon,” first robotic, then human, then on the moons of Mars, and then on Mars itself.
Of course, this would all need serious financial and political backing, but whatever happens, he’s convinced Florida will be a major player in the ongoing space race, if not the only player. Why? Everything that can be done has already been done here, and other places with less experience with space flight — which is all of them — are still working out what they’d do if things went awry. Simply put, history is on Florida’s side.
“Kennedy has a huge advantage — they can hand over their big book of research to any private company and say, ‘Here, this is what you do in case of any scenario.’ Other places don’t have that. If something goes off course in New Mexico or Texas, who knows where it’s gonna end up?”
“Oh, we’ll have commercial space travel,” says Tim Bailey firmly. It’s as if your skepticism — or Ellegood’s, or anybody else’s — is completely unfounded. “Virgin’s gonna do it in the next 10 or 15 years. It’s gonna be hard, but it’s doable.”
Walk north around the corner on Indian River Avenue and you’ll reach Space View Park, Titusville’s collection of monuments dedicated to the likes of every major astronaut and space mission you can conjure up. It’s a cozy little area whose sculptures jut up with shiny metal curvatures and orbs to perfectly encapsulate the noble nature of our past space accomplishments. One can’t help but notice that there’s plenty of room left in Space View Park for more.
Maybe one day Bailey will be honored there, if not for his tireless work in aeronautics and dedication to space then perhaps for the anti-gravity martini he is helping a friend create in time for their first trip to the moon.
“It won’t be in a bag,” Bailey says. “It’ll sit in a glass like a real Earth martini. There’ll even be an olive.”