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Alabama’s ‘Rocket City’ Hopes For Another Boom

Filed by KOSU News in US News.
November 10, 2011

Part of a monthlong series

Driving into Huntsville, Ala., it’s clear what this city is all about: A giant Saturn V rocket looms ahead in the skyline. This is the city that made the Saturn rockets that took the Apollo astronauts to the moon.

“We’re the only place in the world that still has expertise about going into deep space,” says Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle. He says the moment the Saturn V took off and put man into space, it turned what was then a rural farming community on its ear.

And the city has been on a high-tech growth spurt ever since. The place dubbed “Rocket City” is now a metropolitan area with 400,000 people, a high-tech enclave in a poor state.

But with NASA downsizing and the specter of automatic defense cuts looming, Huntsville finds itself in limbo.

The ‘Sound Of Cash Registers’

Battle meets me at the Space and Rocket Center, under a giant model of the Saturn V, and you can hear it rumbling in the background. He says that’s a familiar sound for longtime residents here.

“You’d hear that in the middle of the night. They’d be out on a test stand … and it would shake the whole community. And one time somebody said, ‘I’m not sure I like that shaking the community’ and somebody said, ‘No, sounds like cash registers ringing to me.’ “

But Huntsville is quieter today.

Engineer Greg Allison, who works for a space contractor, says scaling back space exploration is tragic for Huntsville, and the nation.

“If you go through the offices where I’m at, it’s like a ghost town. There’s empty cubes all over the place,” Allison says. “This is talent that can turn our country around. We have enormous capabilities here if we would just get our act together. We can still shine, we can still perform, we can do things that nobody else can.”

Huntsville’s unemployment rate is 8.2 percent — below the national average but double typical jobless figures here. The situation has left laid-off engineers and scientists banding together.

Systems engineer Andy Sutinen founded the Huntsville Space Professionals after he lost his job last year. Sutinen, 55, has since found another job, but that’s not the case for many of the 1,000 members of the club.

Brian Floyd, a space mechanisms designer, has been out of work for a year now. He is 61. “The age thing is a major consideration. I got laid off and my son got laid off exactly the same day. We’re holding pink slips and looking at each other. And he got a job right away, and I’ve had lots of interviews and I can’t get anything,” Floyd says.

Age and experience typically got you ahead in aerospace, but maybe not so much anymore. Karen Murphy, 40, lost her job a month ago. “I’ve never seen it this hopeless,” Murphy says. She says the town is full of smart and dedicated people who need things to do. She blames a lack of leadership in Washington.

“We are all very aware of what the elections next year mean. Both parties have very different ideas and neither set of ideas seems to be doing any good. They seem to have a tremendous amount of motivation to put blocks in front of each other,” she says. “That’s fine when you’re playing politics in Washington, but it doesn’t do a darn thing when I’m trying to decide whether or not I can actually get something for somebody for Christmas this year.”

A Future For The ‘Genius Baby’

Sutinen says there’s a lack of political vision for NASA, which he likens to a neglected baby.

“Not one of the parents, Republicans or Democrats, said, ‘That’s important to us.’ Our genius baby that can help us with our future is not talked about,” Sutinen says. “That tells everybody that the future is dim no matter who’s in office. On top of that both parents have no money.”

And that’s not simply a problem for the aerospace industry. Just across the interstate from the Space and Rocket Center is one of the biggest research parks in the country. Nestled beside cotton fields and cow pastures are a slew of defense contractors: Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon and hundreds more.

“Everyone has an eye on Washington. Huntsville always has an eye on Washington,” says Lee Roop, a reporter with The Huntsville Times. “Everyone’s watching the supercommittee, the impasse in Congress. What’s going to happen? Where is the defense program going to go next?”

If the congressional supercommittee doesn’t come up with a plan to cut the federal deficit, more than half a trillion dollars in automatic defense cuts will kick in. Roop notes that politically, voters here like the idea of budget cuts in general.

“Alabama is a red state. This is a conservative area. Folks here do have the same concerns people do everywhere about the budget and what’s going to happen,” he says. “I think they would tell you this community does vital federal work. There’s government spending, and then there’s our government spending.”

With nearly half the city’s jobs dependent on space and defense spending, that’s certainly Battle’s message.

“We’re developing the kind of things that you have to have if you are going to be a more efficient Army, if you’re going to be a more efficient NASA,” the mayor says.

Whatever happens with the federal budget, Battle remains optimistic. He says Huntsville survived a severe blow to its economy in the 1970s, when the Apollo program shut down.

“Left a lot of engineers here without jobs and all of sudden those engineers, some of them moved away, some said, ‘I’m staying here.’ And out of their basements came four Fortune 500 companies because you left an engineer alone long enough that he decided, ‘I’ve got to do something, so I’m going to start a company,’ ” Battle says.

There are similar rumblings under way today. At the end of a Huntsville Space Professionals meeting last week, founder Sutinen had some news: He’s starting a company and has hired many in the group. We have the talent, he says, to go from helping people find jobs to creating jobs ourselves.

[Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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