Florida's Space Coast seeks to reinvent itself

Friday, July 27, 2012 - 9:00am

As John Bundy loads his red commercial lawn mower into a flatbed trailer, it's hard to believe he used to manage a team of NASA shuttle workers.

Bundy, who sports a scruffy beard and speaks with a thick, Southern drawl, worked at the Kennedy Space Center for 31 years, the last six years as a manager in the Orbiter Processing Facility, a shuttle hangar.

Bundy is one of 8,000 shuttle workers laid off or facing termination from Florida's Kennedy Space Center after the end of NASA's shuttle program. This month marks one year since the program ended with the launch and landing of Shuttle Atlantis.

After his layoff in October 2010, Bundy searched for work for months before starting his own lawn business.

"I've tried a painting company, I've tried a couple of landscape companies, I've tried with the county as far as working outside with the parks and recs (recreations)," he said.

The shock of no longer working at Kennedy Space Center took months for Bundy to process.

"There is life after KSC, I promise you it will go on. You just got to get up and go to work," he said.

Brevard County, home of Kennedy Space Center, saw unemployment spike to more than 11% after the shuttle layoffs, according to Judy Blanchard with Brevard Workforce. In addition to the 7,400 shuttle workers already laid off, another 600 will be terminated by December, she said.

Today, most of Florida's former shuttle workers have found work, according to a recent survey conducted by Brevard Workforce, which receives state and federal funding to help these highly skilled workers find jobs.

Of the 5,690 former shuttle workers who responded to the survey, 57% said they are working, while the remaining 43% are either retired or unemployed. Of the 3,234 who said they have found employment, most of them, 72%, say they are working in Florida.

Florida authorities say they've made steps toward transforming the Space Coast into more than just a launch site for shuttles. That, according to the state's Space Coast Economic Development Commission, has helped "put a serious dent" in Brevard County's unemployment rate, which is 9%.

For years, the Space Coast Economic Development Commission in connection with Space Florida, the state's economic development agency, has worked to attract a more diverse aerospace industry that includes design and manufacturing.

In the past, rockets launched from Kennedy Space Center were designed, tested and built outside Florida.

"We were a launch site -- which was important and that was a great legacy -- but now we could be more," said Dina Reider-Hicks, a director with the Space Coast Economic Development Commission. "In maybe three years, you'll see this place stronger because it'll be diversified."

Today, several companies have committed to expand or begin operations in Brevard County, including Rocket Crafters, which is relocating its headquarters from Utah to Titusville, electronics systems provider Sierra Nevada Corporation and aircraft manufacturers Boeing and Embraer.

But hundreds of former Kennedy Space Center shuttle workers still looking for jobs can't wait for these companies to set up shop in Brevard. Their severances and unemployment benefits are coming to an end.

Many former Kennedy Space Center employees still looking for work can be found Friday mornings at St. Gabriel's Episcopal Church in Titusville. There, they share news about the latest companies hiring or good news about fellow members who found jobs. Several sport T-shirts commemorating the last shuttle, Atlantis, STS-135.

The Space Coast Technical Network started as a way to share the difficulties of being laid off, but today it has grown into a nonprofit corporation.

"Our job is to go out of business, essentially," said Kevin Harrington, a former shuttle manager and the group's acting spokesman. He said the network hopes "to find everyone employment or entrepreneurial opportunities."

Although he has a thriving lawn business, John Bundy stops by the network's Friday morning meetings to catch up with his former co-workers and find out if any companies are hiring.

Bundy says he's hopeful he can return to the aerospace industry one day.

He believes another human space program will once again launch from Florida's Space Coast. He says the United States has the technical know-how to lead a human space program, but right now there's no political will to make it happen.

On Fridays, Bundy cuts grass at property across the Indian River from the Kennedy Space Center where the large Vehicle Assembly Building can be seen on the horizon, next door to his former office.

Bundy has no regrets and is thankful he is one of those who has a job and can pay his bills.

"Any time you're going to do a job that you're going to get paid for, it's honorable," he said. "You do the best job that you can ... it can be anything from washing dishes to processing space ships."
 

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