In normal times, the beaches and roads along Florida’s Space Coast would be packed with hundreds of thousands of spectators eager to witness the first launch of a Florida astronaut in nine years. In the era of the coronavirus, local officials and NASA are divided on whether that’s a good idea.
NASA and SpaceX are urging spectators to stay home on Wednesday for security reasons. Officials in Brevard County, home of the Kennedy Space Center, are rolling out the welcome mat in an attempt to start a tourism industry hit hard this spring by coronavirus-related lockdowns. If people like to watch the launch, & # 39; be sure to. If they aren’t, I respect that too, ”said Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey.
& # 39; I am not going to tell Americans that they cannot view a large piece of history. I’m just not going to do it, “he said. The sheriff said he asks visitors to practice distance while watching astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken launch on a test flight of SpaceX & # 39; s Dragon Crew capsule. The launch is set for 16:33 EDT.
About 85 reserve delegates will attend to follow the crowds and ask people to meet social distances when in groups. A local chain of beach shops distributes 20,000 masks to onlookers in conjunction with the sheriff’s office, Ivey said. Growing up in Florida to watch launches, the sheriff wants a new generation to experience the energy, excitement, and feelings of patriotism that come from watching an American launch with astronauts.
“NASA is a real part of our history in Brevard County,” said Ivey. Earlier this month, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine asked prospective spectators to watch the launch online or on TV from home. The space agency also offers a “virtual launch experience.” NASA is doing its best to facilitate the social distance within the Kennedy Space Center by limiting access, although it may host two VIPS. Vice President Mike Pence says he plans to be there, and President Donald Trump said he is thinking about being there.
The Kennedy Visitor Center, usually an excellent place to watch launches, is closed to the public. NASA astronauts have not been launched from the US since the space shuttle program ended in 2011. It will be the first attempt by a private company to fly astronauts to a runway agency.
& # 39; The challenge we face now is to keep everyone safe & # 39; said Bridenstine. So we ask people not to travel to the Kennedy Space Center, and I’ll tell you I’m sad to even say it. Boy, I wish we could make something very spectacular out of it. & # 39; While the size of the audience varied, a high-profile space shuttle launch could draw half a million visitors to the Space Coast. Local tourists believe that next week’s launch will bring in no more than 200,000 spectators. Now that airline passenger traffic has fallen drastically and the nearby Orlando theme parks are closed due to the pandemic, “we will not get the out-of-state traffic we may have experienced during the shuttle era,” said Peter Cranis, executive director of the Space Coast Office of Tourism.
“The environment is different with COVID and people are now returning from those who stay at home,” said Cranis. “There will be some people who are hesitant.” Space Coast tourism is dropping about 40 percent a year, and that could cost the area $ 1 billion, he said. “Such a launch after a long weekend can really give us a chance,” said Cranis.
Local hoteliers are looking forward to the influx of visitors after two bad months. Tom Williamson, general manager of two hotels on the Space Coast, each with 150 rooms or more, said one hotel was closed and the other was only 15 percent occupied in April. He expects both hotels to be at or near capacity on the evening of launch. “We are happy to appear to be signs of life,” said Williamson.
Steven Giraldo works as a technical advisor to a software company in St. Petersburg, Florida, but he has a side gig with some space-friendly friends who offer charter boat trips for launch launch viewing. For the launch of SpaceX next week, he had booked about 150 people from distant Australia for $ 75 a head on a fleet of boats. He eventually scrapped those plans. “It would take too much logistical effort to see if everyone is wearing a mask, making sure no one has a fever, and how to get social distance on a boat?” Giraldo said.
Instead, he plans to watch the launch with seven other friends, some from Arizona and Indiana, in a boat on the Banana River. & # 39; This would be our biggest event. Its historical significance caused much commotion, “said Giraldo.” But I just don’t know how we could have done it. “