Friday, November 4, 2011

Why NASA's Fire Sale Is Good News for Florida

It's never easy watching an English aristocrat sell off parts of the family estate. First the fields and stables go, then the guest wings. Before you know it, you're confined to a few rooms on an upper floor while tourists tromp through the faded parlors and dining salons.

NASA is learning a thing or two about how old aristocracy feels. With the shuttles mothballed, the U.S.-manned program grounded and once buzzing control centers and launchpads standing empty, the agency announced this week that it will surrender three major buildings on the grounds of the Kennedy Space Center to private industry and is perfectly happy to put more of its infrastructure up for grabs as well. To NASA old-timers, it was one more bit of ignominy for a sadly diminished brand. To the aerospace industry and the state of Florida, however, it looks like smart business.

The postshuttle era was never going to be easy, with the loss of 6,000 jobs in Florida and thousands more in Houston and elsewhere. NASA still needs to make the low-earth-orbit milk runs to the International Space Station that were the shuttle's sole job in recent years, but that work is now being handled by Russian Soyuz ships, an arrangement that does nothing for the idled American workforce and costs the U.S. a cool $62 million per seat every time an American astronaut goes aloft. To keep the country in the space game, the Obama Administration decided on a two-pronged approach: NASA would focus its attention on unmanned missions to the planets and deep-space manned missions to be flown in the next decade or two, while private companies would compete for the earth-orbit part of the space portfolio.

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