Rockets launch almost every week just a few miles north of Rusty’s Seafood & Oyster Bar in Cape Canaveral. The restaurant shakes when a spacecraft breaks the sound barrier and leaves Earth behind.
Commercial space launches from companies like SpaceX, owned by billionaire Elon Musk, helped drive the Space Coast economy in 2020 despite the COVID-19 pandemic. Signs point to an even stronger 2021, especially for the private space industry.
“Praise Elon,” said Rhett Fischer, the restaurant’s manager, jokingly.
Fischer’s restaurant keeps a printed schedule of rocket launches so it can plan around them. The back deck of Rusty’s faces the launchpads where rockets take off and serves as a popular viewing venue.
The pandemic hit Rusty’s bottom line hard, Fischer said. The surge in launches has served as a bright spot during an otherwise down year for the restaurant, he said.
The Space Coast saw 31 launches from Cape Canaveral in 2020, according to the Space Coast Office of Tourism. Last year, Cape Canaveral saw the most orbital launches in the world and the most since 1966 during the Apollo missions.
There could be as many as 53 launches in 2021, said U.S. Space Force Col. Brande Walton to the National Space Club of Florida on Jan. 12.
Fischer is hopeful for the next year of launches, but he said he never hedges his restaurant’s bets on tourism from them.
Launches help drive tourism to the Space Coast, even during a pandemic. Peter Cranis, executive director of the Space Coast Office of Tourism, said that launches have helped recover some of the tourism lost because of COVID-19.
“No other destination can say that you can come to the beach and watch a rocket go up,” Cranis said. “It’s one of those things that really differentiates us and makes us unique.”
On May 30, SpaceX launched its first crewed space flight. The launch brought an estimated 220,000 people to the Space Coast who spent an estimated $44 million, Cranis said. He, too, anticipates even more missions from the Space Coast in 2021.
Some of the planned launches from SpaceX include sending more crews to the International Space Station and several Starlink internet satellite launches. Other launches include continued uncrewed testing of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner crewed capsule through the United Launch Alliance and NASA’s uncrewed Artemis-1 launch to the moon in late 2021.
Brevard County fared better than Orange County in percent of tourism revenue lost for 2020, Cranis said.
Orange County suffered a 77.2% decrease in tourism taxes in July 2020 compared to July 2019, according to the Orange County Comptroller. Brevard County lost just 28% of tourism tax revenue in July 2020 compared to the same month a year earlier, according to the Brevard Tourism Development Council.
Cranis said the county did better because of the beaches and launches, and because Orange County relies heavily on theme parks for tourism.
On top of increased tourism, private space companies brought jobs to the Space Coast.
Brevard County’s unemployment rate in November of 2020 was 5.3% despite record job losses because of the pandemic, according to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity. In Orange and Osceola counties, the unemployment rate in November 2020 was 8.1% and 9.7% respectively.
Ben Malik, mayor of Cocoa Beach, said his town is the beneficiary of a “second space race.” He compared 2020\u2032s growth in private space flight with the days of the Apollo missions in the 1960s.
“We have thousands of engineers coming into our market,” Malik said. “It’s creating quite an economic boom for our entire area.”
Space Shirts, a T-shirt company in Merritt Island five miles south of Kennedy Space Center, is another company reaping the benefits of increased launch tourism. Brenda Mulberry, the company’s owner for nearly 40 years, has done everything from working with Buzz Aldrin to delivering her space-themed shirts to the crew of Air Force One for the STS-95 space shuttle launch in 1998.
“Never underestimate the power of a T-shirt,” Mulberry said. “I got on Air Force One because of a T-shirt.”
Mulberry’s company survived many changes to the space industry, including the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and the shutdown of the space shuttle program in 2011.
But the pandemic has been different. Because the company can produce masks, Space Shirts had its best financial year ever in 2020 despite the pandemic, she said.
Even so, Mulberry is unsure of how the growth of the private launch industry helps her business. She said her company has permission to print NASA logos, but not private logos like SpaceX, Boeing and Blue Origin.
Many customers come in asking if they sell SpaceX shirts and leave disappointed when they find out they don’t, she said. Her company is focused on the government’s ventures in space.
“If the [Biden] administration is pro-space, then we will continue to excel with our space niche, and we haven’t seen our biggest year yet,” Mulberry said.
Dale Ketcham, vice president of government and external relations for Space Florida, said he doesn’t anticipate major changes to U.S. ventures in space with President-elect Joe Biden taking office. Ketcham has worked with Space Florida, a government agency of the State of Florida, since 2010.
He said the Biden administration will likely focus on climate change as part of his space agenda, which could lead to more launches of satellites to help track global temperatures and monitor sea levels.
Ketcham said the growth of the commercial space industry is driving much of the action.
“The human enterprise in space is now not just a government program but a commercial enterprise,” he said. “And it will continue to grow and outpace what the government’s doing out there.”
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