by Aaron London
For most transplants to the Sunshine State in the early 1960s, the sight of palm trees swaying in the breeze and white sandy beaches is enough to lure them south. But for an intrepid group of newcomers, Florida’s easy climate and comfortable lifestyle was secondary to the adventure of playing a leading role in conquering a new frontier in space.
Larry Kelly, who one day would serve as mayor of Daytona Beach, was one of those space pioneers. Arriving in Florida in 1963, Kelly joined thousands of other men and women to work at General Electric’s Apollo Systems Department, headquartered in Daytona Beach.
While the facility is now the site of an Italian restaurant, the legacy of the work done there by Kelly and others was instrumental in the successful landing of Americans on the moon and is the foundation of current efforts to make Volusia County an essential part of the growing commercial space boom.
“We built all the acceptance checkout equipment that made it possible for men to go to the moon,” Kelly said.
At its peak in 1966, GE employed nearly 3,000 people in Daytona Beach creating a high-tech sector to the area’s economy where none had existed before.
According to information put out by GE, the Daytona Beach operation was part of the largest research and development program in peacetime which employed more than 400,000 people across the country at dozens of companies and contractors.
General Electric alone operated 37 different organizations at 26 locations as part of its aerospace efforts and was the fifth-largest contractor in the program, according to company materials. The company even produced a press information handbook for reporters to provide information on the company’s role in the Apollo program.
The company made ground support equipment in Daytona Beach, used to test the hundreds of systems on the Saturn V rocket and other space hardware created for the moon missions. A company brochure summed up the significance of the program thusly: “This equipment never leaves the ground – without it, neither does anything else.”
Kelly said in addition to work on the Apollo program, the Daytona Beach operation also built simulators for the C-130 military transport airplane, which he called “one of the workhorses” of the U.S. military.
Kelly said a lot of people don’t know about the prominent role Daytona Beach played in the space program, even today.
“The other day someone came to my door and said they had no idea about it,” he said.
Also part of the influx of new residents brought to the area by jobs in the space program was longtime Daytona Beach News-Journal columnist Mark Lane.
“I was just a little kid when we moved here,” Lane said.
For Lane, the city’s role in the Apollo program was a given.
“This always seemed like second nature the way things were,” he said. “The space program just seemed like something people did.”
Growing up during that period, urged by the bold words of President John F. Kennedy and the space race, Lane said he was surrounded by posters of the Apollo mission flight path and made models of space vehicles as a kid.
He recalled standing in front of his elementary school with teachers and classmates to watch launches, something he still does to this day.
“Whenever there is a launch I go out to the yard or the bridge and watch the launch, even if it’s just satellites,” he said. “More and more, I’m seeing other people out there with their heads up.”
For Lane and Kelly, the closing of the GE operation in Daytona Beach was a shock.
“That was a big blow,” Kelly said.
The company’s departure came as a result of the sale of GE’s aerospace operations to Martin-Marietta in 1992. The Daytona Beach facility was shuttered as part of a restructuring.
Lane said those connected to the space program through GE “kind of assumed it was always going to be here,” but added he is not surprised that most residents are unaware of the area’s aerospace history.
“Because there is so much turnover in Florida, at any given time something like a third of the population has been here only five years,” he said. “The memory here is pretty short.”
Kelly said he remembers the efforts to try and keep the former GE operations here and said he is excited about current efforts to attract the next generation of aerospace companies.
“It thrills me, to be honest, to see what is happening at the Cape,” he said. “That really to me is significant. It appears the space program is really going back on and I can see the County Council is trying 100% to be part of it.”
Aaron London is a reporter and columnist who has covered business and economics for 27 years. He has worked for newspapers in Ohio and Florida and is also an adjunct professor of journalism at Daytona State College.