Monday, July 20, 2009

Livin' not always easy on 1960s Space Coast

My father's work with the U.S. space program ended about the same time as Neil Armstrong walked on the moon on July 20, 1969.

Thousands of Americans worked for the space program. Some, such as my father, got their start in ICBMs. Nukes used the same missile that took astronauts to the moon -- the Atlas. It didn't take much to jump from the jargon of throw weight and megatonnage to space capsules and lunar rovers.

Besides, my father was an accountant and not an engineer. He kept the books and one line item on a spread sheet is pretty much the same as the other.

They revelled in the mission. Put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Can-do, boss. Give us a challenge and lots of dough and good people -- and we can do anything.

I was proud of my father's work, whether he was tallying costs of blast-proof silos on the prairies of Colorado or Kansas -- or counting Atlas booster widgets in a sweltering war-surplus Quonset hut on Florida's east coast. He lost his ICBM job in 1964 once most of the Atlas rockets were parked underground throughout the West.

That's how we got to Florida. Five years later, he was laid off from his space job in July 1969. His work was done. From 1967-69, thousands of NASA amd G.E. employees and space workers of every stripe from Florida's "Space Coast" were transferred to other less-exotic locales such as Schenectady and Cincinnati and Houston. Our Daytona neighborhood had a dozen homes for sale. They weren't selling because people were moving out, not in.

Those who stayed were laid off (such a strange word) and had to find other employment. My father went to work with the state as an accountant. That move entailed a 180-mile round-trip daily commute to Jacksonville. He finally ended up renting a small apartment and staying up there during the week. Other laid-off spacers opened small businesses or pumped gas like one of my father's engineer friends. Some tried other jobs for awhile and then moved on anyway.

You have to remember that 1969 Central Florida was pre-Mickey Mouse and beachside condo-building craze. Orlando was the size of Tallahassee, Florida's sleepy capital city. Air conditioning was fairly new -- we never had A.C. nor did any of our friends. Retirees had been coming to Florida for years, but mostly lived in rural trailer parks or dilapidated downtown hotels in St. Pete or Miami. Most real jobs were still located in Detroit and Cleveland and Newark and St. Louis and Chicago and L.A. These postwar-boom auto and steel workers were still raising their families and not yet ready to join the huge waves of Florida-bound retirees in the 1980s. At the same time, Rust Belt industries began collapsing under the weight of their own stupidity and Reaganomics. Younger workers headed to new opportunities in warmer climes. Many more followed.

Florida still has a space industry. Smaller now, and much less exotic. It's tempting to romanticize that Apollo 11 mission of four decades ago. I've seen that happening this week on cable news, with paeans to the astronauts and our can-do spirit on getting to the moon. "Moon landing -- 40 years later." But there were also headlines like this: "Moon -- one giant leap or one very small step?"

It was both, I suppose. One giant leap for the imagination. I still support the space program and was briefly encouraged by George W. Bush when he announced future missions to Mars. Then we discovered that he meant Mars, Iraq, and the wind went out of our sails.

I hold out hope for future leaps of the imagination. Look up! Imagine other worlds! Build spacecraft and go forth!

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