Thursday July 21, 2011 early morning, Atlantis touched down in Cap Canaveral as what will be remembered as its last trip. This was the true materialization of the end of an era. NASA has ended its space shuttle program. The US does not have the capabilities, for now, to send men to space. However, this does not mean that American astronauts will remain on the plancher des vaches (read ‘cows’ floor’ in english). NASA will continue to send astronauts to the International Space Station by using the Russian spacecraft, the famous Soyuz. The cost for one seat in the Russian spacecraft has been estimated at $60 million. Russia did not waste time and declared the beginning of the ‘Soyuz era’ or the ‘era of reliability.’
But, what does it mean concretely for Florida?
Before talking numbers, the Kennedy Space Center is part of Florida identity and pride. Each launching and touchdown were part for decades of Florida rhythm. Cap Canaveral has been one of the symbols of US leadership in space research and discovery putting Florida on the map.
NASA human space program was cut a year ago by President Obama in order to limit the cost of an already behind schedule program, the Constellation system. According to Politico, the Constellation program would have wasted $9 billion taxpayer money. Instead, the US government wants to develop competition within the private sector for future manned and low-orbit missions.
Consequently, thousands of jobs have been cancelled. As underlined by the Orlando Sentinel, in 2010, President Obama pledged a $40 million to help the Space Coast to recover. Unfortunately, most of the money went down the drain with the earlier 2011 cuts in federal spending. In term of employment, NASA used to employ a workforce of 18,000 just for the shuttle program. It now counts 5,500 contractors and 1,200 government employees. Thus the economic downfall will most likely be considerable for neighboring towns such as Titusville.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio, as expected, has been quite critical on the matter. During a TV interview early July, Senator Rubio underlined several points: first, the end of the space program will have wide consequences in the US; second, the cost of sending US astronauts to space with the Russian Soyuz is too high; and last, American cannot lose space supremacy to other emerging states such as China and India. Rubio’s rationale is simple and clearly embedded in the republican vision; NASA is a strong component of US national security and should remain in the space game at any cost.
Last, it will be interesting to see how Florida Governor Rick Scott deals with this problem in the near future. Governor Scott has been all about the jobs and limiting the flow of Federal Government money in Florida. Let’s see if he is able to attract private contractors in Florida seeking for their shares in space travel.