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US Space Shuttle Program Nears End of its Voyage

Space shuttle being transported at the Kennedy Space Center
Space shuttle being transported at the Kennedy Space Center

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Steve Mort

The U.S. space shuttle program comes to an end this year, and a debate is underway over what should replace it. The retirement of the shuttle fleet could result in massive job losses in Florida.

Thousands of workers protest in Titusville, Florida over plans to cut up to 9,000 jobs at the nearby Kennedy Space Center.

Space shuttle worker Alan Newton expects to lose his job when the shuttle program ends this year. "I'm planning on doing whatever I have to to find another job. As much as I don't look forward to it, I do know that I'm going to have to," he said.

Since NASA put a man on the moon in 1969 Florida has been the hub of American space exploration.

The region around the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral even calls itself The Space Coast.

The U.S. government estimates NASA boosted Florida's economy by around $4billion in 2008, and generated more than 40,000 jobs.

The Dixie Crossroads restaurant in Titusville depends on business from space workers. Its owner, Lauralee Thompson, says she is worried about a future without the space shuttle. "People don't tend to go out and eat a lot when they don't have a lot of money. So, you know, the impending layoffs at the Cape are a major concern for us," she said.

Political and business leaders are scrambling to find ways to soften the economic impact of the layoffs, meeting recently in Orlando to discuss options.

One projection indicates that 23,000 jobs with direct or indirect ties to the space industry, could be lost in Florida within a year.

Mark Nappi from United Space Alliance, NASA's largest shuttle contractor, says job cuts at the Kennedy Space Center could be just the beginning. "For every job that's created by the space program, there are jobs that are affected by that. If I lose my job and I'm not out buying cars, I'm not using the doctor, I'm not going to restaurants. Obviously there's a trickle effect out into the economy so there's a loss of jobs as a result," he said.

Some shuttle workers had hoped to get jobs developing a rocket and capsule to take astronauts back to the Moon by 2020.

But the Obama administration says it wants to scrap the program, known as Constellation, following an independent panel's finding that NASA lacks the resources to see it through.

Instead, the White House favors using private operators to carry astronauts into orbit.

Shuttle worker Jeffrey Bell argues NASA should continue with Constellation. "Let's not have to rely on other countries and private industry. Let's keep the jobs, let's keep the community, and let's move forward," he said.

Space Florida, the agency responsible for developing the state's aerospace sector, says it is trying to attract new industries that use space-based technologies.

President Frank DiBello predicts workers will be able to find jobs once the shuttle program ends. "It's an available pool of skilled labor talent that other industries covet. We want to be able to apply them to new generation space programs, but also we intend to diversify Florida's economy," he said.

Some of these NASA workers claim efforts to redeploy their skills in other areas come too late with just four shuttle missions remaining.

President Obama is set to visit Florida in April to host a conference on his administration's plans for space.

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