Pain ahead for Space Coast: No shuttle, no identity

Published: Wednesday, January 6, 2010 at 10:09 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 6, 2010 at 10:09 a.m.

TITUSVILLE, Fla. — "I suppose you'll want to see the shuttle room," said Martha Wisniewski, general manager of the Best Western Space Shuttle Inn on the edge of Titusville.

As its name suggests, the hotel at Interstate 95 and State Road 50 caters to tourists who flock here to see NASA launches. And Room 178, aka the "shuttle room," is its out-of-this-world centerpiece, a celebration of space kitsch designed for the most hard-core fans.

Its black ceiling is streaked with fluorescent yellow, red and white paint to resemble galaxies. One wall shows Earth as a blue marble seen from the moon. But the real draw is the shuttle-shaped bed with its black-and-white nose-cone headboard and winged base. A "payload bay" in the tail section conceals a small refrigerator.

"We remodeled the entire hotel this year except for that room because we get so many requests for it," Wisniewski says. A stay there costs $130 a night, a $70 premium over its neighbors.

But the room's days are numbered, just like the orbiters at Kennedy Space Center. With the shuttle program set to end later this year, bringing thousands of job losses to the region, the hotel's owners are considering changing the name of the inn — and shuttering the shuttle room.

The Best Western is among dozens of businesses and communities on the Space Coast wrestling with what to do about the symbol that for three decades has come to define them. The delta-shaped image of the shuttle adorns city seals, welcome signs, building murals, McDonald's play areas and the logos of everything from bars to plant nurseries across Brevard County.

With just five flights left before NASA retires its fleet of orbital space trucks, cities and business owners are confronted with a choice: retain an obsolete image — or find a new icon to drum up business and welcome people to their towns.

United Space Alliance, the contractor that services NASA's three remaining orbiters, has already dropped the shuttle from its logo. An outline of the winged spaceship formed the letter "A'' of "USA," the acronym by which the Houston-based company is best known. Last year, it was replaced by a crescent-moon-and-stars design, representing the "new horizons" the company is seeking after the shuttle era ends.

But for local companies and communities, the decision on what to do is not so easy.

"The end of the space-shuttle program, it's going to hurt everyone in this area," said Wisniewski, the hotel manager. "It's the shuttle. It's what Titusville is built on."

Since it first blasted off in April 1981, the shuttle has been the symbol of the Space Coast, a region whose 321 area code honors a launch countdown and where billboards boast that "dreams are launched." Its image even graces the back of the Florida quarter as an emblem of the state's "spirit of exploration."

"It runs deep as a cultural symbol for all of Florida, but especially here," says Leigh Holt, Brevard County government-relations manager. "Once the shuttle goes, how do we define ourselves?"

That question is especially difficult for Titusville, a NASA company town since the 1960s. The city is pondering how to replace the shuttle on its seal.

"We're ready to deal with it," said Jim Thomas, the city's community-relations director. "Whether it's a complete (seal and motto) change or just changing the shuttle into a more generic-looking rocket or the new one NASA is testing right now, we are ready."

Titusville's been here before. The orbiter's retirement evokes memories of 1972, when President Richard Nixon abruptly canceled the Apollo program, leading to years of economic hardship for the city until the shuttle program arrived seven years later.

The city, which had used a generic rocket in its seal, replaced it with the shuttle in the 1980s. Now, it may go back to the generic rocket, because it's not clear what will replace the shuttle. President Barack Obama might cancel NASA's Ares I rocket because it's too expensive and behind schedule.

Swapping logos is not cheap; it costs money to repaint signs and vehicles and replace stationery — though Thomas says Titusville would use the old stationery until it ran out.

Still, according to Bill Grillo, owner of Shuttles Dugout Sports Bar and Grill just down the road from Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, taking the shuttle out of the picture for businesses can be emotionally costly, too.

For years, Shuttles Bar and Grill was marked by a big lit sign emblazoned with an orbiter. As the closest watering hole to the launchpad, it was popular with both shuttle workers and astronauts.

Grillo bought Shuttles last year with the intention of turning it into a sports bar called "The Dugout," after a famous bar in his native Boston.

But no sooner had he gutted the place, installed 14 flat-panel TVs and begun replacing the $50,000 worth of space memorabilia on the walls with sports collectibles, than, Grillo said, he was hit by a wave of guilt.

"It really bothered me that I may be responsible for losing an institution," Grillo said.

So he redesigned his logo: It now depicts baseball players looking up at a small orbiter towing the name "Shuttles" above the word "Dugout."

"It was the right thing to do," he said.

He since has opened another Shuttles restaurant at the Space Coast Clarion Hotel, as well as a new nightclub. He named the club "The Space Station."

Alas, that only buys him a few years. The club's orbiting namesake is slated to plunge into the ocean in 2016 — but hopes are high that it will win a four-year extension before being added to Brevard's roll call of obsolete spacecraft.

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