Back to Florida's Future
Like many children of the Cold War era, I have distinct memories of some of the Apollo missions. I grew up in Southern Oregon in the foothills of Siskiyou Mountains, a place so devoid of light pollution that on cloudless nights, it seemed we could step out our front door directly into a blue-black sea punctuated by the moon and stars.
I remember watching the later Apollo launches from faraway Florida on a black and white television topped with a rabbit ears antenna. Those broadcasts formed my first impressions of the state, the crowds of men in their Ray-Bans and ladies sporting cat-eye sunglasses gazing skyward. My older sister asked my parents for a telescope, and we spent evenings peering through its small, inexpensive lens trying to spot the astronauts on their moon walks. We always swore we could see them (we couldn’t), and in the morning we begged our mom for glasses of Tang. We loved the adventure of it all. In retrospect, it makes sense that my sister went on to a decorated career in the U.S. Air Force and I pursued a profession that put me in the midst of big events as they happened — just by coincidence in faraway Florida.
Whenever I meet native Floridians from near Cape Canaveral who were children in that era, I always ask about their memories. They tell me of watching launches from the beach or the side of the road, feeling the rumble of a rocket roaring to life and the immense pride that followed — many of them had parents whose jobs allowed them to literally leave their fingerprints on those spaceships. Younger natives attach their memories to the space shuttle launches; the name Challenger still catching in their throats all these years later.
Perhaps it’s because of these indelible memories that the Artemis mission to return humans to the moon revives the wonder of the era. In this issue, the Florida Trend team takes a look at the incredible technological and economic opportunities Artemis presents almost 50 years after Apollo 17 landed on the moon. We were curious about the parallels between today’s effort and when Brevard County transformed from a sleepy beach community to the jumping off point to the modern world.
University of South Florida professor emeritus Gary Mormino is one of the leading experts on the development of contemporary Florida, and he calls the significance of the moon shot “hard to overestimate and hard to calculate” in the many ways it gave rise to the state as we know it.
Space exploration is no less awe-inspiring now than it was decades ago, but Mormino says he thinks most people are only vaguely aware of Artemis, and many of the Floridians he meets aren’t particularly optimistic about the future, much less thinking about what this latest opportunity presents. No doubt, there are a multitude of problems on this planet that demand attention and action, too. While the Space Race era still captivates, a lesser noted event in that history was the peaceful protest at the Apollo 11 launch by civil rights activists who lauded the achievement and heroism of the moon shot but highlighted the “gulf” between the nation’s technological abilities and pervasive poverty and injustice. We still live in conflicted times, but the optimists among us see the potential of this new era in space to produce solutions to Earth’s challenges — including climate change and food insecurity — just as the original moon landings led to life-improving technologies, from CAT scans to LED lights to laptops. There’s progress — slow, but positive change nonetheless — in NASA’s commitment that Artemis will land the first woman and person of color on the moon. Astronaut Frank Rubio of Miami — the son of a Salvadoran immigrant — is one of the initial 18 Artemis astronauts. Overseeing the operation to lift-off is Charlie Blackwell- Thompson, NASA’s first female launch director; Janet Petro is the first woman to lead the Kennedy Space Center.
Floridians should take note of the transformational moment in which the state finds itself again. While in the early Space Race, tens of thousands of engineers, rocket scientists, mathematicians and tradespeople flooded into Florida to accomplish the moon shot, this time Florida’s own talent is leading the way. Almost one-third of Kennedy Space Center employees are University of Central Florida alumni; three of the newly announced 2022 class of seven NASA flight directors were either raised or educated in Florida; and the first student project to land on the moon — the EagleCam — will be the work of Embry- Riddle Aeronautical University faculty and students. At the Weiss School in Palm Beach Gardens, middle grade students are developing small satellites that NASA is launching into low-earth orbit. Private technology and aerospace companies working on Artemis contracts are in every part of Florida.
Expenditures on space are investments in developing the talent pipeline and Florida’s economic infrastructure — there are immediate dividends, but more significant payoffs will take decades to fully realize. Given the breadth and ambition of the Artemis project, this is no small step in the state fulfilling its potential. It’s Florida’s next giant leap.