MERRITT ISLAND, Fla. - For 30 years, going to work gave Gerry Mulberry a sense of pride. When NASA's space shuttle program started in 1981, he was hired as a quality engineer and worked just a few away from the crown jewel of American spaceflight.
"It was exciting just to go to work every day," Mulberry said. "Being a part of something that's history was awesome."
Mulberry remembers the thousands of people who would crowd the causeways of Brevard County to watch -- and feel -- the shuttle blast off. He said seeing a launch in person was unlike anything else he's ever experienced.
"Having a shuttle launch was like having a Super Bowl in your backyard," he said. "Nothing will ever compare."
But on July 8, 2011, the shuttle soared for the final time. For Mulberry and thousands of his colleagues at the Kennedy Space Center, the launch of Atlantis didn't just mark the end of an era, it marked the end of a career.
In the middle of the recession, more than 9,000 people lost their jobs, spiking Brevard County's unemployment rate to nearly 12% and causing housing prices to plummet even more.
"It devastated a lot of my friends and family because they just couldn't make it, and many of them had to move," Titusville resident Tammy Mitchell said. "It almost felt like a ghost town here."
Stephen Weiss also lived in Titusville during Brevard County's economic downfall.
"When the shuttle program ended, a lot of homes in my neighborhood became foreclosed," Weiss said. "A lot businesses that were here for many, many years also had to shut their doors."
But those doors are slowly opening back up. Unemployment numbers have dipped below 4% in Brevard County. Housing prices have rebounded, too, and are close to where they were before the recession.
Mulberry's situation is proof of the economic rebound. He owns Space Shirts on State Road 3 on Merritt Island and says the T-shirt print store, which he opened in 1992, has never been busier. He credits the success to the rise of commercial space companies and the upcoming 50th anniversary of Apollo 11.
"We can't print (Apollo) T-shirts fast enough," said Mitchell, who works for Mulberry at Space Shirts. "It's insane."
Weiss has also seen his business thrive. He owns Pizza@ Titus Landing, which is located in the new open-air shopping center that replaced the aging Miracle City Mall in Titusville.
"Right from opening the doors in 2017, it was a hit," Weiss said. "We have seven units and Titusville is the No. 1 unit for Pizza@. It's amazing."
Between the job growth and volume of launches, the impact private space companies are having on Brevard County is palpable. Weiss said that, when it's launch day and people are lined up along the Banana River right off U.S. 1 in Titusville, his business booms even more because he's located across the street.
"We see at least a 30% increase on that day," he said. "I don't even do specific advertising either. They just find us."
Weiss believes the growth won't be slowing down as astronauts will soon be launched once again from the Kennedy Space Center.
NASA successfully tested the launch-abort system on its Orion spacecraft on July 2. The major hurdle was a big step in NASA's goal to get humans back to the moon by 2024.
The busy time reminds the small-business owner of how he felt during the space shuttle program.
"I got the same feeling back, except this time it's more exciting because they're taking it to the next level," Weiss said.
Copyright 2019 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.