Three, two, one. For the last 29 years those three numbers have produced a flash and roar over this swampy stretch of coastal Florida, trumpeting America's dominance in space and the state's role as the gateway to orbit.
Last week's launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery has given the countdown a new meaning: There are only three more shuttle missions scheduled before the program is shut down.
Barring a last minute reprieve, or unexpected delays, the final voyage will take place Sept. 16. After that, the United States will have no reliable way to put an astronaut in orbit, other than hitching rides with foreign space programs.
And that has produced something of an existential crisis along Florida's Space Coast, which has seen its economy evolve with the space race and is so culturally intertwined with the launch ritual that its area code was changed to 321.
"It's the end of an era," said Brenda Mulberry, as she paced her T-shirt shop on Merritt Island, just a few miles from the Kennedy Space Center. For the last 25 years, her company, Space Shirts, has printed limited edition T-shirts for each mission. Armies of tourists that descend on the town for the launches snap them up.
"We say we are so close that we feel the movement of every launch," Mulberry said.
That sensation is not only physical but also economic.
The power of the space program ripples far beyond the towns huddled around Cape Canaveral.
Space Florida, the state's aerospace economic development agency, estimates the shuttle shutdown will cost the state 9,160 direct and some 23,000 direct and indirect jobs. It will also gut the $1.93 billion that NASA pumps into Florida annually to support launch and landing operations.
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