How the space program launched the Florida we know today

Fifty years ago, the first of 12 astronauts walked on the moon. Florida launched all of them, and they in turn helped launch what we currently know as Florida. 

"The towers of Canaveral give Florida a unique place in history of man," boasted a government-produced video from the early 1960s -- back when gasoline was 30 cents a gallon, back when the space race ramped up. 

"Brevard County, site of Cape Canaveral, is the fastest-growing county in the United States, more than tripling in 10 years," the Florida Development Commission video continued.

That was just the first spurt, before President Kennedy ordered the moon shot, before our government bought another 219 square miles of marsh and turned it into a sprawling space factory.

They called it the Launch Operations Center, then renamed it Kennedy Space Center. They'd ship sections of the Saturn V rocket on barges, assemble the rocket and vehicles in the Vehicle Assembly Building, stack them on a mobile transporter, and crawl them to the launch pads. 

Those giant crawler-transporters remained in use through the space shuttle program and now await NASA's next-generation rockets for yet-to-fly moon missions.

"There's many things you can touch right here that are from early 60s," KSC crawler program manager John Giles offered during a recent tour. "Nobody's going to give us the money to get another one right now, not in this day and age."

NASA now has a fixed budget that's a much smaller slice of the budget compared to the early days. The space race gave Florida a sudden jolt in wealth and a flood of development and jobs.  

"Housing construction was everywhere and so it was really exciting times," Apollo-era electronics engineer Ken Poimbeuf recalled.

These were comparatively high-paying jobs that drew a mass influx of highly-educated and young families to Central Florida. The area around the Cape suddenly had the highest concentration of doctoral degrees in the nation.


It drew clusters of defense contractors, research labs, and electronic factories. And as the government started building Interstate 4 to link the Space Coast to Tampa, it spread rapidly west.

"Tampa is on the I-4 corridor," explained Dr. Phil Metzger, a University of Central Florida planetary scientist and former KSC employee. "This corridor is the center of high-technology development for Florida."

Metzger's dad moved to Florida to work on the space race. And like so many others, Dr. Metzger followed in his old man's footstep.

"It was sort of like a fish doesn't notice the water that it swims in. I just thought that's way life is: People work on the space program."

It drove growing waves of tourists to watch the launches. It launched the clusters of motels – many with space themes, from the Starlite, to the Sea Missile, and Polaris – and even a brand new town called Satellite Beach.

Many of the homes from Tampa Bay to Titusville were built in the ‘50s and ‘60s. That was during the space rush, and that rush created demand for groceries that fueled a chain based in Jacksonville called Winn Dixie, and another grocer based in Lakeland that would become a retail giant: Publix.


After NASA built out Kennedy Space Center, there were rumors it had scooped up another 39 square miles west of Orlando. 

But it wasn't NASA. It was Walt Disney. 

Disney knew all these growing young families with such buying power, plus the throngs of tourists, created an untapped frontier for family entertainment.

The rest is history, including a certain mountain of tomorrow that seemed to fit with the times. That created more demand, which built out Central Florida as the hub of technology, aerospace, space development and entertainment we know today. 

While the Space Coast suffered a blow when the shuttle program ended in 2011, the emergence of private companies like SpaceX has helped local industries rebound. And 50 years after our first night on the moon, NASA is accelerating its plans to fly back to the moon and then take a much greater leap. 

"I think that bringing humans to the moon to establish a permanent base, bringing humans to an asteroid to start mining and start looking at resources, and eventually to Mars, I believe those things will help inspire the next generation of problem solvers," offered Robert Bishop, the dean of engineering at the University of South Florida. "The next generation of explorers, which the world needs."