By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - Shuttles Bar & Grill, a once-popular roadside diner a few miles south of the Kennedy Space Center, is shuttered, and a "For Rent" sign is taped to the window of a bagel shop that used to serve space center workers an early bird breakfast.
But a year after the United States ended NASA's space shuttle program, crippling communities around Cape Canaveral that had grown dependent on government contracts, private spaceflight and other ventures are starting to fill the void.
Titusville, Florida, which bore the brunt of the layoff tsunami following the shuttles' retirement, this month landed Utah-based Rocket Crafters, which plans one day to fly Supersonic passenger space planes around the globe.
"Bit by bit, we're seeing companies that are technical in nature that are taking advantage of the high-tech workforce," said Marcia Gaedcke, president of the Titusville Area Chamber of Commerce.
Rocket Crafters is developing a hybrid fuel rocket engine with a 7,000-mile (11,265-km) range. Its space planes would take off and land horizontally, like conventional airplanes, but travel above the atmosphere in suborbital space.
"The idea is to go from Titusville to anywhere in the world at about one-sixth of the normal aircraft time," said Michael Powell, who oversees the Titusville airport where Rocket Crafters plans to build a manufacturing plant and operations center.
The company expects to hire between 500 and 1,000 employees and is a sign of the times as Kennedy Space Center repositions itself to support a variety of government, commercial and scientific programs after three decades of shuttle operations.
NASA currently employs 8,500 contractors and civil servants at the Kennedy Space Center, which is being revamped for launching the agency's new heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket and Orion space capsule.
The system is intended to fly astronauts to asteroids, the moon and other destinations beyond the International Space Station, which orbits about 240 miles above Earth.
A decade ago, NASA's workforce was nearly twice its current size. But as the shuttle program wound down, about 7,400 contractors were shown the door.
That opened what Sean Snaith, an economist and director of the University of Central Florida's Institute for Economic Competitiveness, described as "a pretty big crater" in the region's economy.
"In the beginning, there were numerous jobs for mechanical engineers, but the problem I'm running into is that they're looking for people who have experience in computer-aided design in 3-D and I don't have that background," said Irwin Minsky, 61, who was laid off by shuttle prime contractor United Space Alliance in April 2011.
Minsky, who holds a master's degree in mechanical engineering, said he had not had any job interviews, but was considering taking classes to update his skills.
Ed Avery, a former launch pad technician and quality inspector, is not waiting any longer. The 51-year-old is recruiting former colleagues to staff work-at-home call centers, a job he says pays between $8.50 and $19 an hour.
That is less than what Avery earned at the space center, but it beats most wages in Titusville and elsewhere in the so-called Space Coast region, where a close association with the U.S. space program is reflected in the 3-2-1 telephone area code.
Brevard Workforce, the county's training and job placement agency, reports that about half of the 5,700 workers it tracks have found jobs, although about 900 had to relocate.
NASA's layoffs coincided with the worst housing crisis to hit central Florida since the shutdown of the Apollo U.S. space program 40 years ago.
But home sales and median prices have been picking up this year, and Brazilian aircraft manufacturer Embraer, which opened its first U.S. assembly plant in Melbourne, Florida, last year, recently announced a 67,000-square-foot (6,225-square-metre) expansion to house an engineering and technology research center.
The company expects to add 200 engineers, with average annual salaries of $70,000, beginning this month.
"Because there is so much in the way of aviation and aircraft industry in Brevard County, we're able to select the right kind of people that will work for Embraer. There's a lot of talent in this area," said Phil Krull, Embraer's managing director in Melbourne.
Overall, the county's unemployment rate is 9 percent, down from a peak of 11.7 percent in August 2011, following the shuttle program layoffs, according to Snaith. The national jobless rate is 8.2 percent.
Much of the local backlash for canceling the shuttle program fell on President Barack Obama, even though the decision was made before the Democrat took office in January 2009.
Since space is an integral part of central Florida's economy, that same backlash threatens to hurt Obama in his campaign for re-election on November 6 against Republican rival Mitt Romney.
The so-called I-4 corridor region, spanning the interstate highway that cuts across Florida's midsection, is seen as home to many undecided voters in the battleground state.
"If you're the incumbent when it hits the fan, you take the blame," said Dale Ketcham, a Florida space policy analyst who works with several business development and research agencies.
"The I-4 corridor is the most important piece of political real estate in the country," he said.
(Editing By Tom Brown and Peter Cooney)