BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. — It was a time of fear, hope and a collective goal: Beat the Soviet Union.
What You Need To Know
- May 27 SpaceX launch bringing in new era of space
- Will mark a resturn of astronauts to space from US soil
- COMPLETE COVERAGE: Destination Space
“In the late '50s, early '60s, it was all about the space race," said Derrol Nail, who works as a public affairs specialist for NASA.
His father worked as an engineer for NASA; the agency also employed in various capacities other family members, from his mother to uncle.
Growing up in Cocoa Beach, Nail says launches stirred his own curiosity, and decades later, drove him to work for NASA himself.
“When I was a little kid watching the rockets go up, it certainly sparked my imagination," he said.
But in the race for space dominance, Russia sprang ahead, launching its Sputnik satellite in October 1957. Soon, America was playing catch-up, launching its own satellite several months later.
And in 1962, a year after Russian Yuri Gagarin became the first human to blast into orbit, American John Glenn followed suit.
Brevard County native Jim Ogle was a young engineer then. He watched with other colleagues from Douglas Aircraft Company's missile assembly shop hangar as Glenn made the historic flight aboard Friendship 7.
“The shouting and screaming, the 'Go baby go, go baby go,' our first human on this rocket," he said, recalling he and others were "blown away" by the sight. “Everybody was out in the parking lot to watch that.”
Years later, Ogle worked on Apollo missions when his company built the third stage vehicle.
“We tested and tested every single system on that, every transistor, every wire," he said. "And there were millions of them, to perfection, to where we thought, 'It's absolutely flawless.'"
His coveted badge got him in the firing room to see Apollo 11 blast off in 1969.
“Holy mackerel, the pride of our nation," he recalled. “We became dominant in the space program for many, many years. And the pride of being dominant goes along with everybody working in it."
Pink slips appear
The moon landing marked the end of the first distinct era of space. American interest in the space program began to wane as pink slips began to appear.
“The last few Apollo missions back to the moon started to lose their luster," Nail said.
Soon, Brevard County saw a shrinking workforce and contracting school system; It was a financial strain for many families who had grown dependent upon the boom of space.
“I remember as a kid, fellow students in my classroom moving away. And I said, 'Where are they going?' Their dad had to take a job somewhere else," Nail recalled.
The era of space shuttles
A new era wouldn’t come until the late 1970s into 1980s, as a vision for a space shuttle and focus mission took shape.
“The space shuttle’s big lift, so to speak, was to build the International Space Station," said Nail. “It was a return of the American space program tackling big things, big projects, like the Hubble Space Telescope. This was an incredible vehicle that was going to basically start the next era of space exploration and science.”
As space exploration ramped up again, so did growth along the Space Coast.
Launches soon became routine, though tragedies with shuttles Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003 were setbacks, marking sad times for the space agency and American public.
“The space shuttle program ran for 30 years, from 1981 to 2011, when the last flight, Space Shuttle Atlantis, flew," said Nail.
Once STS-135 landed and the shuttle retired, there was a void again. The Cape grew quiet and the boom of launches became a distant memory.
Multi-user spaceport: a new era
For the past nine years, American astronauts have hitched rides aboard a former foe's spacecraft, turning to Russia in order to maintain access to their portion of the ISS.
But now, NASA is on the verge of a new era: The agency's Florida facilities are serving as a multi-user spaceport for commercial companies SpaceX, Boeing, and Blue Origin, who are innovating and launching their own missions.
“NASA has mastered the low-earth orbit, and we’ve shared all this knowledge with commercial companies. Now we want to see all those commercial companies and commercial industry and low earth orbit take hold," Nail said. “It’s so cost-prohibitive for any one company to try to tackle that. Even doing so, we’re looking for commercial partners, especially for the moon.”
The impending SpaceX launch, scheduled for May 27, will mark a return of American astronauts departing from U.S. soil.
The mission involves two NASA astronauts, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, who will ride aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft, propelled by a Falcon 9 rocket. They will ensure it can fly autonomously to the ISS, and if something happens, Nail said, they need to be able to use manned controls to override.
For Ogle, the launch symbolizes the arc of continuity, spanning a 51-year career based around his lifelong love of space.
“I’m going to watch it probably from my front yard, like a lot of people here," he said. “Anybody that’s still thriving from the old days, we are really looking forward to a great launch. They’re doing it right in the middle of the pandemic. They’re going forward, I love it. I love it.”
“It reignites that loves of space and connects it with our history of space," Nail said. “Something changes when you know that people are riding on that rocket. And that’s what’s happening with this launch.”