Friday, December 11, 2009

Florida's space economy gloomy with end of US shuttle program

The United State's space shuttle program, which is so much part of state lore that Floridians voted to depict the winged space vehicle on a 2004 commemorative quarter coin, now has just a few missions left before winding down in 2010 after 29 years of flights.

And there is no clear replacement for what is an important driver of the fourth most-populous U.S. state's economy, as the Obama administration is debating a new U.S. manned-space program that would at best be many years away from new launches.

Florida's economy has been especially hard hit by recession. U.S. state and local governments are sapped by budget deficits, while fledgling private-sector efforts to carry Americans into space for fat fees appear to be nowhere near getting traction.

But on Monday, in California, billionaire Richard Branson unveiled a small passenger spaceship (dubbed VSS Enterprise) aimed at creating a commercial space tourism industry. Virgin Galactic, hopes the craft will carry tourists into zero gravity beginning in two or three years.

The rest of Florida, whose large economy and 18.3 million people are strikingly reliant on tourism and housing, also gets a meaningful lift from America's space programs that put the first people on the moon four decades ago.

During the 2008 fiscal year, NASA activities generated $4.1 billion in overall economic benefits for the state, including $2.1 billion in household income, and 40,802 jobs, according to a state study.

NASA last year spent $1.8 billion in Brevard, where 93 percent of the space center's 15,000 workers live. The space shuttle also drove much of the county's fast population growth over the last three decades.

Government officials acknowledge the state's space economy will never be the same, even if the federal government goes ahead with a proposed new manned space program that the head of a presidential panel has said was fatally flawed.

Yet, on the space coast, economic anxiety is displayed on checkout counters, where customers are encouraged to pick up and sign pre-typed letters to President Obama that implore him to make good on campaign promises to back the space program.

The letter-writing campaign and a website, www.savespace.us, are part of a movement by local residents to make space programs a U.S. budget priority.

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