CAPE CANAVERAL -- They’ll come, as many as a million strong, to witness the end of the space shuttle era.
They’ll line Indian River, camp on Cocoa Beach hours before the planned 11:26 a.m. Friday liftoff. They’ll wait to feel the thunderous shake of twin booster rockets, to watch Atlantis paint that double helix of fire and smoke across the heavens one last time.
Then, thrill over, they’ll go home.
And the place that put the first American in orbit and the first man on the moon, lit the fuse under 30 years of shuttle missions and turned a sandy, scrubby barrier island into a globally renowned gateway to galaxies unknown will slip into a sort of communal mourning for the things now lost: a flawed workhorse of a spacecraft, thousands of jobs, the luster of a mission that defined Brevard County as America’s Space Coast.
“It really is like a stage of grieving,’’ said Gary Stutte, a scientist who has spent nearly two decades at Kennedy Space Center on teams “close but not quite there’’ to perfecting a compact life-sustaining greenhouse for long missions. He’ll wrap up a last experiment on Atlantis but, like 9,000 laid-off workers leaving in disappointment, knows he won’t reach the goal at Kennedy Space Center. He has accepted a fellowship in Ireland, where the European Space Agency will tap his expertise at growing plants in micro-gravity.
“There is the perception and palpable sense that this is the real end of the NASA human flight program. I don’t think that is necessarily true but that is certainly the sense,’’ he said. “The shuttle is gone. There is nothing to take its place.’’
Nothing certain. For the first time since President Nixon canceled Apollo in 1972, the future of America’s space program -- and the Space Coast’s role in it -- remains very much up in the air.
Under an overhaul announced by President Obama last year, NASA canceled the troubled Constellation project. President Bush had unveiled the back-to-the-moon mission in 2004, at the same time scrubbing a shuttle program shaken by a second disaster with Columbia. Chronically underfunded from the get-go, Constellation drifted so far behind schedule that a presidential commission in 2009 pronounced it “on an unsustainable trajectory.’’
Now, plans call for NASA to pay Russia to deliver Americans to the International Space Station, at $50 million or more a seat. The space agency will simultaneously bankroll a new private space fleet to ferry astronauts and payloads into orbit. None of the four companies developing spacecraft -- Blue Origin, Boeing, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada Corp. -- have home bases in Florida. They’ve aced test launches but industry experts say shooting humans into orbit remains at least three years away.
NASA still aims to make it to Mars or beyond. But those missions, which will need hefty political and budgetary support, likely remain a decade or more away.
In a speech Friday at the National Press Club in Washington, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden insisted the agency is not leaving the space race but only retooling to return to the approach that captivated the world during Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs in the 1960s and 1970s -- pushing the envelope of exploration.
“When I hear people say or listen to media reports that the final shuttle flight marks the end of U.S. human spaceflight, I have to say… these folks must be living on another planet,” he said.
Jim Ball, deputy manager of center planning and development at KSC, delivered a similar message during a tour last month.
Ball, who is in charge of finding new ways to use a space center minus a primary mission, stood on the spaceport’s long runway and laid out a vision of a KSC abuzz with private enterprise. Just outside the gates, along Space Commerce Parkway, dump trucks and bulldozers spread fill that will become the launch pad for something NASA dubbed Exploration Park -- a complex the agency hopes will lure aerospace companies to lease launch and runway time. He said 17 companies have indicated interest.
“I assure you there will be life at Kennedy Space Center after the shuttle retires,’’ Ball told reporters. “NASA has a bright future.’’
Phil McAlister, acting director of commercial spaceflight development for NASA, notes that privatizing space travel should provide a buffer from “prevailing political winds.”
But despite that famous NASA motto -- “Failure is not an option” is emblazoned on mugs and T-shirts for sale at nearby Astronaut Hall of Fame -- McAlister acknowledged the nation’s space program was entering unexplored territory.
“There are many challenges ahead -- technical, financial and cultural,’’ he said. “Success is not assured.’’
For many space advocates, scrapping a still-capable vehicle without a firm replacement doesn’t sit right.
The shuttle may be remembered most for two tragedies -- Challenger fireballing a minute into flight in 1986 and Columbia disintegrating during re-entry glide in 2003 -- but it also recorded hundreds of successes launching military and weather satellites, building an international space station and capturing mind-expanding images of stars being born and dying through the eye of the Hubble telescope.
“We’re putting the shuttle program to an end without a clear path forward,” said Elliot Pulham, CEO of the Space Foundation, a non-profit space advocacy organization.
“We are pre-eminent in space and we won’t be after this launch,’’ said Charlie Mars, an aptly named retired NASA engineer and president of the U.S. Spacewalk of Fame Foundation, which has built three monuments to space programs and runs a small museum in Titusville.
“Who is the best in the world at getting huge payloads in space, at building things in space? We are,’’ he said. “Granted, we’ve got money being put into private companies but we’re going to lose that lead in space.’’
Russia and China will reign instead. India, which has put an unmanned probe in lunar orbit and is aiming farther, also is thriving. The European Space Agency, with a major spaceport in French Guiana, dominates the commercial satellite business.
But others argue the aging shuttle, designed before cell phones existed, represented a black hole of time and money holding America back from developing a more sophisticated, safer generation of spacecraft.
Dale Ketcham, director of the Spaceport Research & Technology Institute, a KSC think-tank run by the University of Central Florida, considers the shuttle a “magnificent vehicle” that could be configured for any mission. But it never lived up to its original conception as a cheap “space truck.’’ It was complicated, expensive at $1 billion-plus per launch and risky, failing at a sobering rate of every 50 missions.
“NASA needs to be spending its money on the missions and the payloads and the crews,’’ Ketcham said, “instead of on just running the truck.’’
Astronaut Michael Barratt, a veteran of 212 days in space, views the transition as a “hiccup,’’ Space travel, he said, is simply going through the same evolution as every other form of transportation.
“Clipper ships faded because steam ships could do it better. Of course, they’re beautiful. They did their jobs incredibly well,” Barratt said. “You can’t help but have sentimental attachments to a fleet of ships that did such a tremendous job and were so iconic in space flight, but there’s definitely a need for a new generation of spacecraft. It would have been better to have that ready before we retired the shuttle; nobody disagrees with that.”