This story is the first installment of Spectrum News 13’s new initiative, “Street Level,” which explores Florida through the history and culture of specific streets and the people who live there. You can watch part 2 of Street Level: A1A in the video above and learn more about the project here.
The Space Race was effectively over, and two weeks after the first man set foot on the moon, the culmination of years of careful calculations and scientific advances, Jim Ogle said it began.
“I see somebody get a pink slip. ‘Here's your pink slip.’ Guy over here on the other side gets a pink slip,” he recalled. “The layoffs started two weeks to three weeks after the first moon landing because we did it. We've been there and done that.”
Ogle, now a NASA docent, spends two to three days each month fielding questions from curious visitors at Kennedy Space Center. But in the late 1960s, he was a young engineer, concerned about losing his own job. His company, Douglas Aircraft Company, had built the third stage vehicle for Apollo 11.
Ogle hung onto his position, though over the next five decades, his company would be bought and sold several times over. Name changes led to new assignments that would take Ogle to California as his company became Boeing.
He retired with the title of Senior Avionics Engineering Specialist in 2011 and, back in Brevard County, he found himself back at NASA talking about the moments which shaped the course of history.
“We'd been racing to the moon. Got there. Beat the Russians. Now what?” explained Florida Institute of Technology professor Robert Taylor. “There was not a clear answer to that question.”
The time after the landing was difficult, not just for NASA, but for Brevard County as a whole.
Taylor said that as the government quietly began pulling funding for NASA, American interest in the space program waned. Soon, unemployment soared, families left, seeking new jobs, and the area built upon the promise of space fell into decline.
“A1A, for a while, got to be very quiet again. There weren't Corvettes. There weren't throngs of tourists,” he said.
The trying times were punctuated with peaks, like the Shuttle program.
With the first launch of the Space Shuttle Columbia, or STS-1, in 1981, Americans were once again captivated. Astronauts’ new missions centered around tackling major projects, from building the International Space Station to assembling and launching the Hubble Space Telescope.
A decade later, Navy Captain Winston Scott joined the ranks and logged nearly 25 days in space.
“You are just awestruck about being there because you are one of the few people in the history of the human race that have actually left the planet and lived and worked in space,” he described. “As you orbit the earth, everything is just so, just so awesome, so amazing, so beautiful, bright and colorful.”
So, too, was life along the coast, as families and opportunities returned to Brevard County.
The energy along A1A “ebbed and flowed with the energy level of the space program,” Scott said.
“In my day, we didn't get Corvettes, but we got convertibles. So we land our jets, jump in the convertible and we drive up A1A,” he said.
“There were folks who said at the time, ‘America's back. The space program is back.’ Though it would never be the same as in the 60s,” said Taylor.
Hope and excitement were especially high around the launch of the Challenger Shuttle because on board would be a teacher and the first civilian selected to go into space, Christa McAullife.
Spectators gathered to watch the launch on the cold morning of January 28, 1986. A mere 73 seconds into the flight, tragedy struck as the Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart in mid-air.
Disaster would strike again in 2003, as the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated as it re-entered earth’s atmosphere, killing all crew members on board.
After the Columbia disaster, the government suspended Shuttle flights for two years before halting the program altogether in 2011.
“When the Shuttle dropped off, people didn't have jobs. There were a lot of empty houses,” said John Hilliard, a volunteer for the 45th Space Wing who lives in Cocoa Beach.
“It was just like a void. No one really talked about it. It just kind of happened,” recalled Rhett Fischer, who co-own restaurant Rusty's Seafood and Oyster Bar.
He and other family members opened the restaurant in Cape Canaveral off A1A in 1992, moving it from their original location alongside the family’s iconic spot, Bernard’s Surf.
As Rusty's Seafood and Oyster Bar powered through the economic downturn, the family sold the restaurant and famous astronaut hangout affectionately dubbed ‘The Surf’ in 2006. Now, a pile of dirt sits on the corner of Minutemen Causeway and Atlantic Avenue.
American astronauts began hitching rides with the former U.S. adversary, Russia, in order to maintain access to their portion of the International Space Station.
But just when the stars and the moon felt further away than ever before, the boom was back, as private companies, like SpaceX, Boeing, and Blue Origin began fueling a comeback for A1A and the space industry.
“This renaissance of commercial spaceflight really is that next phase of innovation,” said Tom Engler. “It is an environment where we have both government and commercial activities working together.
As Kennedy Space Center’s Director of Center Planning and Development, Engler helps to put together the agreements which allow private firms to work at KSC.
He explained NASA’s vision for their own future as diversified; one in which they could offer up a multi-user spaceport for commercial companies to innovate and launch.
“It allows Kennedy Space Center to really be that epicenter of human space flight and space travel. And so we are that gateway right now to the moon and Mars and beyond,” he said. “The near-term goal for us is the moon by 2024, first woman, next man on the moon, which is exciting.”
Invigorated by the prospect, third year Florida Institute of Technology astrobiology student Cynthia Montanez spends at least 20 hours each week in the lab. She’s studying how plants could survive in the harsh conditions presented by the planet Mars.
“Once we’re on Mars, we can expand to other planets. We can even try other galaxies. I just find it fascinating,” she said. “I would love for, one day, my research to be ready enough to actually go onto the ISS station or to be on the surface of Mars, once people start arriving there, and see if it works.”
They are lofty goals, but not improbable ones, according to NASA. And in the meantime, launch after launch, re-energizing Rusty's Seafood and Oyster Bar.
“The best two minutes in sports are the launches, not the Kentucky Derby. That's what I say,” said Fischer. “Customers come in, there's a complete energy shift when there's a launch. People who've never seen one before, the look on their face. The countdown clock ups the ante.”
“It's hard to describe how exciting it is right now and where we think we can go. It's really almost boundless,” said Engler. “Kennedy Space Center would not be here in the way that it is without A1A.”
Robert Taylor, a professor at Florida Institute of Technology, agrees. He said that the U.S. is on the verge of a new space era, marked by private companies largely taking over “low-earth operations.”
“This area is always going to be at the center of American space efforts,” said Taylor. “A1A ran right to the space center, right to the launch pad, to the stars.”