MELBOURNE, Fla. — The day after the shuttle Atlantis landed for the last time at the Kennedy Space Center on July 21, 2011, Angel Telles, a man with three master’s degrees, scooped up his white Mission 101 coffee mug and drove away from NASA after 24 years on the job there. The shuttle era had ended, and with it the jobs of 8,000 NASA and civilian workers who found themselves unemployed in the midst of a harsh economic downturn and a crush of home foreclosures.
A diner at a restaurant in Titusville, Fla., which has been slower to recover jobs and housing than the rest of Brevard County.
So great was the blow to the state and NASA’s traditional space program that it put politicians, including presidential candidates, on the defensive on the campaign trail.
“I mean, it was happening before our very eyeballs,” said Mr. Telles, 50, whose most recent job at NASA was developing requirements for new vehicles, as he recalled his last day at the space center. “This is happening to me? Really? You are in shock.”
“But then,” he added, “you say, ‘I am moving on.’ ”
He did, and finally, this month, Mr. Telles landed a well-paying engineering job with the Harris Corporation, an international telecommunications equipment company. His hiring is the latest sign that nearly two years after Brevard County was left staggering from the one-two punch of the downturn and the demise of the shuttle program, the Space Coast, while still struggling, has defied the bleak predictions.
Private employers on the Space Coast, which includes Cocoa Beach and Merritt Island, have created more than 4,000 jobs since 2010 and have added 1,000 more this year, including jobs in aerospace, aviation, engineering and other high-technology sectors. Companies like Embraer, which makes jets, Northrop Grumman and Rocket Crafters were among those that moved here or expanded. Small businesses are also opening at a faster clip. Housing prices are rising, and the pace of foreclosures is slowing in some areas.
The linchpin in Brevard’s recovery was a plan to diversify beyond aerospace while maintaining its astronaut aura and capitalizing on its coveted labor force: well-trained, highly educated workers with security clearance who have demonstrated the ability to launch manned spacecraft into orbit.
“Everyone said we were going to get hit by a Category 5 storm — board up and get ready,” said Robin Fisher, a Brevard County commissioner from Titusville, which has been slower to recover than the rest of the county. “After the national program shut down, there were a lot of reasons to fail. But we didn’t.”
The future after Atlantis was in many ways guided by the lessons of Apollo. More than four decades ago, this county was built on the gold rush that resulted from the Apollo program, back when astronauts were household names and Cocoa Beach was familiar to television viewers as the home of “I Dream of Jeannie.” But in 1972, President Richard M. Nixon shut down the program, decimating the communities surrounding the Kennedy Space Center.
An estimated 18,000 jobs were lost in 18 months. Some residents walked away from their houses.
“The cancellation of Apollo was much more abrupt, and it was a lot bigger,” said Dale Ketcham, who is in charge of strategic alliances for Space Florida, the state’s port authority for space and its economic development engine. He grew up in Cocoa Beach and was headed to college at that time. “The economy was much less robust and diversified, so there really wasn’t anything else to do.”
This time around, local and state officials had years to plan for the end of the shuttle program, which was announced by President George W. Bush in 2004, after the Columbia shuttle disintegrated on re-entry. A scaled-down program called Constellation was begun, but that was canceled by President Obama after it, too, became expensive.
Despite the setbacks, Brevard kept one important project: the building of Orion, a multipurpose deep-space capsule. It was the first time the Kennedy Space Center moved from launching a craft to assembling one.
A few months after the shuttle program closed, Boeing stepped in, announcing it would establish a headquarters at the space center for its new spaceship program to fly astronauts to and from the International Space Station. The program would create 550 jobs by 2015, a relatively small number, but one welcomed nonetheless by local and state officials.
The larger challenge was drafting a plan to diversify beyond the traditional parameters of government-run deep-space programs and finding a way to recoup the 8,000 lost jobs little by little.
But in the past three years, more companies have started to roll into Brevard. They have been enticed, in part, by government tax incentives sprinkled liberally across Florida to court business, a practice that has drawn some criticism.
“The problem in the past is that there was no plan of action,” said Lynda Weatherman, the president of the Space Coast’s Economic Development Commission. “It’s as much a psychological promotion story as an economic one. It said there is a Chapter 2 in our lives. Part of the reason we got into this situation is because all we did was launch.”
But, she cautioned, “We are not out of the woods yet.”
Inside a state-of-the-art hangar at the Melbourne Airport, Embraer’s sleek executive 10-seater jets are being assembled, outfitted and painted. Embraer, a Brazilian company that was voted a top firm to work for in the state by Florida Trend magazine, was courted by 20 states. It moved to Melbourne, a turning point for the area, and opened in February 2011.
One reason Embraer chose Melbourne was that it wanted the first chance at hiring laid-off shuttle workers. Forty of the employees working on its jets are former NASA contractors. Others came from an Air Force base nearby. Embraer recently announced it is building an engineering center here, too.
“We knew there would be very qualified people that would be valuable to us,” said Gary Spulak, the president of Embraer Aircraft Holdings. He added that many of the workers already had experience with aircraft like Cessna, Piper and Gulfstream: “They were all using processes we hold in high regard.”
The area has also seen an infusion of companies involved in suborbital spaceflight, like Rocket Crafters and Xcor Aerospace. Last month, Northrup said it planned to add 920 jobs to its aviation operation in the county.
Still, recovery is far from assured. The unemployment rate in Brevard was 8 percent in February, higher than Florida’s average and the country’s over all. About half of the laid-off shuttle workers have founds jobs here or somewhere else. The rest retired, moved away or were still looking for work, according to Lisa Rice, the president of Brevard Workforce, which helps them find jobs.
Severance packages will soon run out for some, raising new concerns. Underemployment is another worry. Disparities have become more pronounced; recovery has been swifter in the southern part of the county, where Melbourne is located. In Titusville, farther north, empty storefronts and houses sit forlorn. Yet there are subtle signs of recovery: An arts movement is budding, and the town’s biggest mall is being redeveloped.
“The county has been split in two,” Mr. Telles lamented.
He said he did what he could to market himself. He went back to school for an undergraduate degree in engineering. He learned new skills, including how to polish his résumé. But often, he said, employers saw only his degrees and former salary — and blanched.
“They just said, ‘Do I want to pay that guy this much money before he moves on to something else?’ ” Mr. Telles said.
On March 5, though, he started his new job at nearly the same salary he had at NASA.
“Things are improving,” he said, “and as time goes by, it will continue to improve.”