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There are plenty of public places in Brevard County where you can get an excellent view of a rocket launch from Canaveral Air Force Station. Wochit

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Titusville's Space View Park has been an iconic spot to view launches, dating back decades. Its vantage point along the Indian River offers spectators a chance to see spacecraft launch across the water from Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The crowds in the park and on the nearby A. Max Brewer Bridge that once numbered in the thousands all but disappeared after the space shuttle program ended in 2011. But, now, the park — similar to other launch viewing sites around Brevard County — is seeing a comeback, as excitement builds once more about the space program.

Titusville resident Robert "Ozzie" Osband is a fixture on launch day at Space View Park. He provides the launch audio for spectators, as well as brewing up Lavazza espresso, the brand of coffee on the International Space Station.

"I consider this as my little niche hobby in helping to share the knowledge about launches," said Osband, during a break from answering spectator questions about the Feb. 19 SpaceX Falcon 9 launch on a resupply mission to the International Space Station.

Spectators crowd near the shore, not far from Space View Park's monuments and plaques commemorating milestones in the U.S. space program. As liftoff time nears, many point their phones or cameras in the direction of the launch pad across the river.

"For many of them," Osband said, "it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience."

Hotel official Nancy Evans has noticed the buzz, too.

Evans, director of sales at the 96-room Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott in Titusville, said about one-quarter of her hotel's business is tied to the space program, including tourists coming to see a launch or visit the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, or space industry workers here for a business trip.

A typical guest question at the hotel front desk, Evans said is: "Where is the best place to watch the launch?"

Branded "Space Coast" 

Space Coast Office of Tourism Executive Director Eric Garvey said his agency is working to promote space launch tourism. That includes organizing launch viewing parties at venues around the northern part of the county, such as Port Canaveral's seven-story Exploration Tower; upgrading the SpaceCoastLaunches.com website that focuses on launch activity and other things to do in the area; and debuting a Facebook Live show in the 30 minutes leading up to the opening of a launch window.

"We try to make sure that we're known as 'Florida's Space Coast,' " not just locally, but nationally and internationally, Garvey said. "It's a part of our brand identity."

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In a historic first for the company and the industry, SpaceX launched and landed a "flight proven," or refurbished, Falcon 9 rocket from Kennedy Space Center.

The show won't be just for space geeks, however, and won't try to mimic a NASA broadcast, for example. Instead, it will discuss the launch and the underlying mission, but also talk about other tourist-focused venues in the area, and include things like a surf report and interviews with local celebrities.

"We'll cover space, and we'll also cover the destination" from a tourism standpoint, Garvey said.

The Office of Tourism doesn't have a specific breakdown. But the tourists who watch launches include a mix of people who may drive over for the day from a vacation elsewhere in Florida, such as from the Orlando-area attractions, and people who plan their vacations around a scheduled launch and stay at Space Coast hotels.

Orlando resident Isao Obatake brought four visitors from Japan to watch the Feb. 19  SpaceX launch from Space View Park. Although the rocket disappeared into the clouds after just a few seconds that morning, he said it was "very exciting" for he and the visitors, and he expects to be back.

Sherry Sharlow, a retired teacher from Massena, New York, who was visiting Brevard County, also was watching her first launch that day from the shoreline of Space View Park.

"It's pretty cool," Sharlow said, just after the SpaceX rocket lifted off. "And I can't think of a nicer place to see a launch."

But the crowds reached only about 300 people that morning — certainly not like the crowds last seen for the final launch of a space shuttle in 2011.

Historic perspective

Titusville resident Charlie Mars has witnessed the evolution of the space program for more than a half-century. Mars worked on the Mercury, Gemini. Apollo and space shuttle program. After his retirement from NASA, Mars was president of the U.S. Space Walk of Fame Foundation and Space Museum in downtown Titusville. He currently is vice chair of the board of director's at the organization, now known as the American Space Museum and Space Walk of Fame.

Mars recalls two launches when an estimated 1 million spectators were watching the launch from Brevard County — the 1969 launch of Apollo 11 that would land the first astronauts on the moon and the first launch of the space shuttle in 1981. Mars said the 1988 return to flight of the space shuttle after the 1986 Challenger accident was a launch that brought an estimated 750,000 people to Space Coast launch viewing sites.

"There was a passion for the entire program," said Mars, who headed Kennedy Space Center's projects office for the Apollo lunar module and for the first three space shuttle missions. "Everyone felt they were a part of it, down to the pizza delivery person."

Mars says he doesn't know if we'll see that kind of passion or those kinds of crowds again on the Space Coast. But the fascination with Elon Musk's SpaceX, which launches from here, and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, which is building a factory here, suggests the area might.

And, pizza delivery people still are excited about the space program. Case in point: The delivery driver who created a social media stir on Reddit discussion boards a little more than a week ago when he posted a photo taken from a helicopter of a new robotic device sitting on the deck of SpaceX's autonomous spaceport drone ship Of Course I Still Love You.

Speculation abounds that crowds approaching 1 million could turn up again for some special missions, such as the first launch of SpaceX's planned tourist flight around the moon and the first launch of astronauts on a mission to Mars.

"To go to another planet — that gets to people," Mars said.

Former astronaut Jon McBride, who piloted a 1984 space shuttle mission — the first shuttle flight with a crew of seven — and now is director of astronaut education programs for the KSC Visitor Complex, said another thing that draws crowds: the roar and rumble of larger rockets.

"The bigger the rocket, the bigger the crowd," said McBride.

Higher-profile missions

Osband says he has seen as many as 500 people coming to Space View Park for launches recently.

Spectators also watch launches from the Cocoa Beach Pier and the beaches of Cocoa Beach and Cape Canaveral, as well as from Port Canaveral's Cove area and Jetty Park.

Jetty Park "is packed, just packed," when there is a rocket launch, Port Canaveral Chief Executive Officer John Murray said.

Jetty Park typically averages 400 to 600 vehicles for launches, depending on the scheduled launch time. And with Exploration Tower near the port's Cove area, their is another location to see a launch.

"Obviously, there's not as many people as in the shuttle days" watching launches now, said Charles Radley of Palm Bay, a volunteer with the Florida Space Development Council, a chapter of the National Space Society.

But 2018 will be a big year. Both Boeing and SpaceX plan to launch astronauts to the International Space Station, which would mark the first crew launches from U.S. soil since the final flight of space shuttle Atlantis in July 2011. NASA also hopes to launch its new deep space rocket, the Space Launch System, and an unmanned Orion capsule on a test flight from Kennedy Space Center.

The crowds viewing such launches "very well may approach shuttle levels," Radley said.

And with SpaceX not only launching rockets, but also landing its first-stage booster, in many cases, viewers not only get to see a rocket lift off, but also return. Crowds on the beach applaud when they hear the booster's sonic boom signaling its return.

"It's exciting. It's unique. It's an incredible thing to watch," Evans said. "It's very 'Star Trek,' "

Important for hotels

Tom Williamson, a partner and general manager of the Courtyard by Marriott and Hampton Inn in Cocoa Beach, said about 50 percent of the room rentals at the 156-room Courtyard are tied to the space business and 30 to 40 percent at the 150-room Hampton.

"Just the increase in the launch activity is tremendous," Williamson said. "It's bringing more visitors and it's bringing more contractors. There's so much going on."

There could be as many as 30 launches from the Space Coast this year, up from 18 in 2016.

Garvey said the Office of Tourism also plans to work more closely with the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex to boost the number of people coming to Brevard County to view a launch.

The Visitor Complex already is Brevard County's most popular paid tourist attraction, and its attendance has rebounded following the opening of the space shuttle Atlantis exhibit in 2013. Visitor Complex attendance rose to 1.66 million in 2016, up 48 percent from the 1.12 million who came there during 2012, the first full year after the end of the shuttle program.

"Everybody is excited about space and space exploration," McBride said, adding that the excitement will be even more intense with the return of launching humans into space from the Space Coast.

Garvey said, even if spectator counts for individual launches don't reach Apollo or space shuttle numbers, "I think we're going to exceed those numbers" for a full year "when you add them all up."

"There will be some missions that will be monumental in nature," Garvey said. "It will create excitement and buzz."

Contact Berman at 321-242-3649 or dberman@floridatoday.com, on Twitter at @bydaveberman and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/dave.berman.54.

 

 

By the numbers

1 million

Estimated number of people who watched the launch of the Apollo 11 moon landing mission from the Space Coast in 1969

1.66 million

Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex attendance in 2016

48%

Percentage increase in Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex attendance since 2012

30+

Projected launches from the Space Coast this year, led by SpaceX and United Launch Alliance. One Minotaur launch planned

18

Launches from the Space Coast in 2016

400 to 600

Average number of vehicles entering Port Canaveral's Jetty Park for a launch

 

KSC Visitor Complex attendance

Therrin Protze, chief operating officer for the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, provided the following attendance figures for the complex during a recent Brevard County Tourist Development Council leadership retreat:

2008: 1,588,318

2009: 1,594,550

2010: 1,511,006

2011: 1,389,625

2012: 1,124,962

2013: 1,213,304

2014: 1,383,071

2015: 1,582,539

2016: 1,660,105

 

 

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