Shuttle Atlantis launched on mission STS-135 July 8, 2011.
This story was updated July 21 at 8:32 a.m. ET.
Rusty's Seafood and Oyster Bar in Cape Canaveral, Fla., pulled in a record number of clients last week as people flocked to the area to witness NASA's final space shuttle launch.
Now, owner Rhett Fisher — like dozens of other local business owners — faces a decidedly different business future, marked by the end of an era that saw millions of tourists flock to the area to watch space shuttles blast off and history being made.
But he's not pessimistic
Rusty's has been a Cape Canaveral fixture for 20 years, and Fisher's family has operated area restaurants for nearly six decades, living through the space program's temporary suspensions following the losses of the Challenger and Columbia shuttles in 1986 and 2003 respectively.
"We thought that was going to kill us, but it didn't," Fisher said. "We are going to bounce back from this, too."
NASA's final space shuttle mission, STS-135 aboard the Atlantis orbiter, ended today (July 21) to cap a 13-day trip to the International Space Station. Atlantis landed in Florida at NASA's Kennedy Space Center at 5:57 a.m. EDT (0957 GMT). NASA is retiring the shuttle fleet to make way for a new deep space exploration program. [Photos: NASA's Last Shuttle Mission in Pictures]
Planning for change
While it's disappointing to know his futurecrowds might not match the number that visited his restaurant for the final launch this month Fisher said there are other events during the year that will draw plenty of customers to Rusty's doors.
"We had a record week, but we did just as well for our July Fourth party," Fisher said. "The port is becoming the place to be."
David Spain, who's owned the Comfort Inn and Suites in Cocoa Beach since the days of the 1970sApollo missions, is similarly optimistic and said the end of the space shuttle program doesn't mean certain doom for area businesses that rely on tourism to support their bottom line.
"We have been here before," Spain told BusinessNewsDaily, referring to the lull in activity between the Apollo and shuttle missions. "This time, though, we are better prepared than we were."
In the years since the shuttle program began, the entire area around Cape Canaveralhas expanded, and proved to businesses that not all their profits depend on the space program.
The first Port Canaveral cruise terminal opened in 1982. Today, it ranks as the world’s second-busiest cruise port, with nearly 5 million cruise passengers visiting the area every year.
"We have the cruise industry, which we did not have before," Spain said. "Gambling boats are going to pick up again also, and there could be a thousand people a day on those trips."
According to the Canaveral Port Authority, the Port brings in $1.1 billion in revenue annually for businesses that provide services there. That won't make up for the loss of the shuttles, but Spain said every little bit helps.
"We areable to pick up a little (business) here and pick up a little there," he said.
Finding new customers
Craig Carroll, owner of Cocoa Beach's Ron Jon Surf School, is expecting a slight drop in business without the launches to rely on, but doesn't think it will be too upsetting to his bottom line.
"We do a lot of tourist (business)and a fair amount of local business that is not driven by shuttle launches, which should persist without impact," Carroll said. "Keep in mind that we are the closest beach to Walt Disney World in Orlando, and we get a lot of tourists that want to escape Disney for a day or two."
While a lot of businesses are concerned about the projected drop in tourism, another sector of the community is worried about a decline in actual residents after NASA lays offan estimated 9,000 shuttle workers later this year.
Bill Augustine, manger at Dilorenzos Pizza and Subs in Cape Canaveral, said losing those customers is really going to hurt.
"For us, it is already slower than usual, and we rely mostly on locals, with 90 percent of our business being takeout and delivery," Augustine said.
Spainagreed the loss of NASA employees likely will hurt business; their science colleagues from across the country who spend time in Cape Canaveral in the months leading up to a launch also will be missed.
"They are making multiple trips to the Cape," Spain said. "It is that business that goes away that is going to be devastating."
Yet he also believes the changes will force the area to build a business model that doesn't revolve around the launch, which will actually help local businesses in the long run.
"I think we are in for a couple of slow years, but in the long run we will have more diverse (interests)," Spain said. "We won't have all our eggs in one basket."
In addition to the burgeoning cruise industry, Spain also thinks the privatization of space exploration through companies like SpaceX will be a boon to the community. SpaceX already has 20 rocket launches scheduled through 2015 under a contract with NASA, which will bring a number of additional people to the area.
"I think things are a lot more positive today then they were at the end of Apollo," Spain said. "Realistically, there is no reason for this area not to explode."