By Tom Brown
TITUSVILLE, Florida (Reuters) - The end of the U.S. space shuttle program is the end of the line for Tom Brown and other workers like him at the Kennedy Space Center in central Florida. He is about to join the ranks of the unemployed.
"It's kind of scary," said Brown, a 60-year-old contractor and structural steel painter who has worked on the shuttle program for the last 26 years.
Brown lives in Titusville, a town on the Indian River just west of Merritt Island and the Kennedy Space Center. Located in the heart of Florida's so-called "Space Coast" it has depended on the U.S. manned space program for much of its economic livelihood for most of the past 50 years.
The region has long prided itself on its close association with the space program. That connection was highlighted when it fought and beat out suburban Chicago for rights to the liftoff-style 3-2-1 area code when it was up for grabs more than a decade ago.
In a sign of the times, however, Stephen Gaughran, the owner of Sparky's pool hall in downtown Titusville, said local residents were so strapped for cash lately that he passes much of his time counting the cars driving past on U.S. 1, the highway just outside his storefront.
"I have been in business here 22 years and this is the worst I've seen it," said Gaughran, whose customers have long included space center contractors coming in after work.
"I survive on people's disposable income and I can tell you, right now they don't have any," said Gaughran, who predicts that Titusville will soon look like "a ghost town."
He was referring to the fact that Brown, who is one of his regulars, is one of about 3,200 shuttle contractors due to be laid off on July 22.
The space shuttle workforce stood at 18,000-strong in its heyday in the early 90s, when NASA's spaceship fleet was working through a backlog of missions grounded after the 1986 Challenger accident.
But by the end of August only about 1,000 workers will remain on the shuttle program payroll.
Shuttle veteran Alice Whitsel, who is 55 and worked as a contractor with NASA for 32 years, expects to be laid off by March next year at the latest.
She lives in a double-wide trailer in Titusville and said she only escaped losing her job in July because of her seniority. She is saving as much of her $30 a hour salary as she can.
"Fix it if it's broke," said Whitsel, echoing time-honored advice that she has heard repeated a lot lately.
"If you can't afford it, you don't need it," she added. "If it's torn, wear it out."
The job crunch at the Kennedy Space Center comes as Florida, which was hard hit by the U.S. housing and mortgage foreclosure crisis, continues to struggle with a wobbly economy and widespread unemployment.
"CELESTIAL RUST BELT"
Sean Snaith, a University of Central Florida economist, said he thought Titusville and other towns in the Space Coast area will diversify economically and avoid becoming part of "some sort of celestial rust belt."
But he acknowledged that the space center layoffs, and the end of shuttle launches, which were a major tourist attraction in central Florida, will have ripple effects across the economy.
"It's a tough blow and the transition is going to be very difficult," Snaith said.
"This place is going to be Flint, Michigan," a NASA contractor said, referring to the city northwest of Detroit that has been decimated by the decline of the U.S. auto industry. The contractor asked not to be identified.
"I'm going to survive on what severance package they give me," said Brown, as he took time away from his pool game at Sparky's to talk about what he sees as a grim post-shuttle outlook.
He was referring to the one-week payout he is due to receive for each of the 25 years he was officially employed at Kennedy Space Center.
Brown, whose wife is disabled and has a daughter whose husband was recently blinded, said leaving Titusville was not a real option for him.
His house is bought and paid for, he said, but it would fetch painfully little on a market flooded with foreclosures and sales driven by previous layoffs from the shuttle program workforce.
"I can't leave, I can't sell and I can't find a job," Brown said. "I don't know what to do."
(Additional reporting by Irene Klotz, Editing by Paul Simao)