Hard Times: A Journey Across America
4:00 am
Wed November 9, 2011

Alabama's 'Rocket City' Hopes For Another Boom

Originally published on Fri November 11, 2011 7:40 am

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 space and defense contracting company and has plans to hire many in the group. We have the talent, he says, to go from helping people find jobs to creating jobs ourselves.



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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Two NPR correspondents are making a journey across America this fall. One is moving east, the other moving west, and they're talking with Americans about the changing economy and the long, uncertain, often bitter, tail end of the great recession.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Today this hard times journey takes us to Huntsville, Alabama. It's doing better than some places. Unlike the county that includes Birmingham, which filed for bankruptcy yesterday, the town of Huntsville has a balanced budget.

INSKEEP: The trouble involves the near future, in a city that has been all about the future. Huntsville calls itself Rocket City U.S.A. It is the town that helped put man on the moon, 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. NPR's Debbie Elliott has our story.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Driving into Huntsville, it's clear what this city is all about. A giant Saturn 5 rocket looms ahead in the skyline. It's on the grounds of the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, where you can travel back to 1965.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Automatic countdown sequence and start...

ELLIOTT: This is the city that made the Saturn rockets that launched the Apollo astronauts to the moon.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ...three, two, one, ignition...

TOMMY BATTLE: And you have just heard the Saturn 5 rockets take off and put man into space, you know? And it's kinda neat, we're the only place in the world that still has expertise about going into deep space.

ELLIOTT: That's Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle. He says that moment turned what was then a rural farming community on its ear. And the city has been on a high tech growth spurt ever since, now a metropolitan area with 400,000 people. 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 to long-time residents.

BATTLE: You'd hear that in the middle of the night. They'd be out on a test stand and they'd go whooooooh(ph) and it would shake the whole community. And one time somebody said, I'm not sure I like that shaking the community. And everybody said no, it sounds like cash registers ringing to me.

ELLIOTT: But the sound in Huntsville is quieter today.

GREG ALLISON: If you go through the offices where I'm at, it's like a ghost town. There's empty cubes all over the place.

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

ALLISON: 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 perform, we can do things that nobody else can.

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

ALLISON: Andy!

ANDY SUTINEN: Oh, hey guys.

ELLIOTT: Andy Sutinen greets members of Huntsville Space Professionals, a group he founded when he lost his job last year.

SUTINEN: People get laid off, it's like rats leaving a ship. You know, everyone heads off in their own direction. And you feel like, you know, is it my fault? So I realized, no it's not, and it's not really your fault. You're just a number, really.

ELLIOTT: Sutinen, who is 55, has since found another job, but that's not the case for many of the 1,000 members of his club.

BRIAN FLOYD: My name is Brian Floyd and I am a space mechanisms designer.

ELLIOTT: He's been out of work a year now, at 61.

FLOYD: 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, looking at each other. And he got a job right away. And I've had lots of interviews and I can't get anything.

ELLIOTT: Age and experience typically get you ahead in aerospace, but maybe not so much anymore. Karen Murphy is 40 and lost her job a month ago.

KAREN MURPHY: I've never seen it this hopeless.

ELLIOTT: She says the town is full of smart and dedicated people who need things to do, and blames a lack of leadership in Washington.

MURPHY: 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. 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.

ELLIOTT: Andrew Sutinen says there's a lack of political vision for NASA, which he likens to a neglected baby.

SUTINEN: 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. That tells everybody that the future is dim, you know, no matter who's in office. You know, on top of that, both parents have no money, you know.

ELLIOTT: 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 is a slew of defense contractors: Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon and hundreds more.

LEE ROOP: Everyone's got an eye on Washington. Huntsville always has an eye on Washington.

ELLIOTT: Lee Roop is a reporter with the Huntsville Times.

ROOP: Everyone's watching the supercommittee, everyone's watching the impasse in Congress. What's going to happen? Where is the defense program going to go next?

ELLIOTT: If the congressional supercommittee doesn't come up with a plan, 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.

ROOP: Alabama is a red state. This is a conservative area. Folks here do have the same concerns that people have everywhere, about the budget and what's going to happen. I think they would tell you that this community does vital federal work. You know, there's government spending and then there's our government spending. So...

ELLIOTT: With nearly half the city's jobs dependent on space and defense spending, that's certainly the message from Huntsville mayor Tommy Battle.

BATTLE: 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.

ELLIOTT: 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.

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

ELLIOTT: There are similar rumblings under way today. At the end of a Huntsville Space Professionals meeting last week, founder Andy Sutinin had some news.

SUTINEN: Chris knows - I'm going to be starting a company, so... And Chris is going to be part of this company. We're hiring Brian, and Herb, and I would like to get you to be part of the company.

ELLIOTT: We have the talent, he says, to go from helping people find jobs to creating jobs ourselves.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

INSKEEP: I want to let you know that you can follow our Hard Times series on Twitter @nprhardtimes. I just now started following myself. You can also follow this program @MORNING EDITION and @nprinskeep.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.