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On Florida’s Space Coast, a return to the ‘good days’ of launching astronauts is near with decade-defining SpaceX flight

Crew Dragon Launch Escape Demonstration file photo from January 19, 2020. (SpaceX/TNS)

Kyle Mallory was on the runway when the space shuttle Atlantis landed at Kennedy Space Center for the last time, ending human spaceflight from the United States with a screech of its wheels in the early hours of July 21, 2011.

Just this week, nine years later, Mallory was there again as America prepares its return. He watched as crews loaded SpaceX’s Crew Dragon with propellant, readying the egg-like capsule to birth a commercially dominated epoch of human spaceflight. Mallory and his team, who work on life support during missions, were there to supply the suits that technicians wear — SCAPE suits, not space suits — when handling the highly combustible fuel that was loaded onto Dragon.

On Wednesday, the vehicle is scheduled to take a ride atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with two astronauts aboard — shuttle veterans Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley — fulfilling a promise more than a decade in the making that America would be again able to launch its own astronauts on its own vehicles. The launch, a test flight for Crew Dragon before regular missions can begin, is scheduled for 4:33 p.m. from Kennedy Space Center’s historic launch complex 39A.

Witnessing the propellant load was a moment of pride for Mallory, who is a second-generation space worker like many who live on Florida’s Space Coast. Mallory’s father, Roger Mallory, worked as a communication technician during the Apollo program in the 1960s at the Cape. And Mallory worked on the shuttle since 1989 before he was laid off the day after Atlantis landed, along with thousands of others.

Things were dark then — unemployment in Brevard County had bottomed out at 11.8% the year before. Talent was draining out of the Space Coast, some of it never to return. Some people thought NASA itself had completely shut down. What is space exploration without astronauts to launch?

This launch will be an injection of life into a region that has built so much of its identity around being area code 3-2-1. Launching satellites regularly is exciting. Watching SpaceX grow into a force in spaceflight, with its now routine booster landings, has been thrilling. But nothing captures imaginations, hearts and eyeballs quite like a crewed mission.

“This is a monumental launch, there is a lot riding on it,” Mallory said. “It’s good for our country. I feel red, white and blue all over.”

Lifting off in a pandemic

Still, it won’t play out the way many expected. The lingering impact of the coronavirus pandemic will likely make for more muted crowds instead of what was expected to be throngs of hundreds of thousands of visitors. The Space Coast Office of Tourism is expecting about 100,000 to 200,000 people. Area hotels are already getting booked through Memorial Day weekend and on to the launch.

“We are really hoping that’s the shot in the arm that we need because we’ve seen just a downturn,” said Peter Cranis, the tourism office’s executive director.

But who knows what it could have been. Half a million people came to the Cape for the last shuttle mission.

“Had the pandemic not rained on our parade, it would have been huge — the traffic would have been epic,” said Dale Ketcham, vice president of government and external relations at Space Florida, the region’s spaceport authority. “Even with the pandemic, there’s still going to be a lot of people showing up because not only is it humans on the pointy end of the rocket, but it’s SpaceX. And those guys just draw a whole new crowd anyway.”

SpaceX beat out Boeing, the other contractor on NASA’s commercial human spaceflight program, to perform the first launch with crew aboard. Due to a series of errors during Boeing’s unpiloted test flight late last year, the company likely won’t launch astronauts on its capsule, the CST-100 Starliner, until 2021.

The Commercial Crew Program was born in 2005, and after years of discussions with eight companies, SpaceX and Boeing were awarded contracts in 2014 to produce astronaut-rated capsules that could launch to the International Space Station at $2.6 billion and $4.2 billion, respectively. In the meantime, the U.S. has relied on Russia to transport its crew at a cost of more than $80 million a seat.

SpaceX and Boeing both struggled, though, through explosions, the trickiness of parachute development, cost overruns and more than two years of delays. But SpaceX’s successful test flight of Crew Dragon to the ISS and back in March 2019 signaled Elon Musk’s rocket company might get there first with a crew. And the company has since checked off other key milestones, including an abort test and final parachute testing.

The successes of both companies also have showed that this new approach, with NASA engaging more actively with commercial companies to fulfill its needs, is solidly what the future of spaceflight will look like. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has repeatedly said that NASA wants to be “one customer of many customers” in a commercial space marketplace. Private companies are already working on the components of NASA’s next major mission: A 2024 moonshot.

“This is the highest-profile mission that we have, which is our astronauts,” Ketcham said. “If the private sector can achieve that goal successfully, and we certainly believe they can, then there really isn’t anything else that they can’t be given responsibility for.”

Renewed interest in space is going to be a side effect of the upcoming missions, as more Americans tune in to watch crews liftoff to the ISS. But that interest will also bring more questions about the nation’s priorities, as it has in the past, said space historian Teasel Muir-Harmony.

NASA is moving ahead with the launch because the mission was deemed “essential” during the pandemic. The space agency is at risk of leaving the ISS without a single American on board if it can’t certify SpaceX through this mission, setting the groundwork for regular operational missions as soon as this fall, or the need to secure another seat on a Russian flight.

“One thing that happens is it attracts attention both good and bad,” Muir-Harmony said. “I’m sure it will also bring some questioning about priority setting and why we are investing in something like space exploration especially at a time when the country is going through the pandemic. Thinking more back to the Apollo and Gemini days, it became a touchstone for critiquing U.S. policies.”

The challenges of the space program have been marked by the changing whims of presidents, some of whom have slashed NASA budgets, and others who have bloated it. President Donald Trump has been an ardent supporter of the space program, establishing a new military branch called Space Force, a new combatant command called Space Command and setting the new moon landing goal to 2024, four years earlier than planned.

Trump and Vice President Mike Pence are expected to be at the Cape next week to watch the launch.

‘This mission really did improve my world’

For the Space Coast, the launch is expected to ignite a new set of economic opportunities.

Lynda Weatherman, president and CEO of the Space Coast’s Economic Development Commission, said it could help the region attract more talent in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, giving it an advantage in the so-called “talent war” so critical to enticing companies to relocate to the area.

“To have the launch, it’s a chance for us to maybe catch our breath and say, “Yeah, our legacy of our space industry is still active and we can certainly plant our feet on that,’” Weatherman said.

The mission is already paying dividends for local businesses like Space Shirts, an institution on the Space Coast just outside the gates of Kennedy Space Center that has been selling commemorative T-shirts for more than 35 years.

Space Shirts was shuttered for a month due to the pandemic before starting a small reopening with the hopes of getting orders out for their new T-shirt, a heather grey design with a blue mission patch on the chest. “U.S. returns to manned space flight,” it reads.

Then owner Brenda Mulberry got a phone call from Karen Nyberg, astronaut Doug Hurley’s wife and an astronaut herself. Nyberg wanted Mulberry to design a shirt for Hurley’s family and friends to wear on the day of the mission, a black design with a white American flag in the back and the words, “Hurley Support Crew.”

Nyberg knew Mulberry from the space shuttle days, when Mulberry designed a shirt for the final shuttle mission in 2011, which Hurley also flew on. Mulberry agreed.

Then Megan McAruthur called, too. That’s Bob Behnken’s wife, who is an astronaut as well. Her family and friends wanted their own shirt, navy this one with the words “Team Bob” on the front and the mission patch across the entire back.

Mulberry was stunned — and thrilled. She thought back to a space station shirt she sells with a design that reads, “Every mission improves our world.”

“This mission really did improve my world,” Mulberry said. “I’m very grateful for the business.”

Now, between shipments to 500 of the astronaut family’s relatives and friends plus sales of their own merchandise for the mission, Space Shirts is “swamped.”

Mulberry said it won’t be like the last shuttle mission though, on July 8, 2011. That day was the busiest she ever had at her shop, with people lining down the street on both sides to grab a shirt before the program shut down for good, the return of humans to space a distant dream then.

“We were constantly, 100% of the day ringing up sales all day long. From 7 in the morning to 10 o’clock at night, we never slowed down,” she said.

One man from Panama City came in and bought $7,000 worth of memorabilia. One of the astronauts on the mission had the surname Ferguson (Chris Ferguson, who will fly on Boeing’s commercial missions), and a Dr. Ferguson wanted everything with his name on it: Patches, shirts, bits of this and that.

He paid in cash. So Mulberry called the police. It could be stolen money, she thought.

Dr. Ferguson cleared the police check.

“It looks like you just had a good day,” the cop told her.

Those were the good days for her and for so many. Human spaceflight infused the Space Coast with a vibrancy of a kind that exists only in this small coastal community that has spent so much of the past 60 years looking to the heavens, to rockets they’ve helped build and crew they’ve helped prepare.

This time, the good days will come back with a shake of Mulberry’s metal shop, the rumbling in the windows that indicates America is making history again.

She’ll walk outside at 4:33 p.m. and look up. Once the Falcon 9 clears the trees, she can see “as good as anybody.”

What to know, how to watch

Launch time: 4:33 p.m., Kennedy Space Center’s launch complex 39A.

Watch: NASA TV coverage begins at 12:15 p.m. at

Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex: The park remains closed due to the coronavirus pandemic and will not be offering viewing opportunities.

Jetty Park: The park will be open only to annual pass holders from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on a first-come, first-served basis. Jetty Park will be operating at 50% capacity, allowing only the first 230 vehicles in, so come early. Walk-ins are also prohibited. Guests will be required to comply with 6 feet social distancing guidelines.

Port Canaveral: The Cove, a restaurant area at Port Canaveral, will be one of only two areas at the port — the other is Jetty Park — the will be open to view the launch.

Beaches: Beaches along Brevard County will be open, with most parking open as well. Visitors are strongly encouraged to practice social distancing guidelines and use caution if choosing to watch the launch in person.

Playalinda Beach: The beach, part of the National Park Service, remains closed due to COVID-19 and has not yet announced a reopening date.


© 2020 The Orlando Sentinel