By: Brian A. Shactman, Jessica Golden

At the height of the space shuttle program, there were 18,000 people working at the Kennedy Space Center.

When it ended last summer, that number dropped by more than half almost immediately.

Conventional wisdom was that the surrounding communities would suffer severe economic hardship.

What CNBC learned from being on the ground there: It’s not the case.

Unemployment ballooned to 11.7 percent last August, but since then, there’s been an impressive infusion of positive energy — not to mention millions of investment dollars … and jobs.

Boeing, Embraer, SpaceX and Lockheed Martin are some of the companies that entered Brevard County to take advantage of Florida’s business friendly environment and the Space Coast’s highly skilled but under-utilized work force.

Embraer invested $50 million and established two facilities — a manufacturing plant and a showroom for their private jets.

“We narrowed it down to three states and six sites,” said Gary Spulak, President of Embraer Aircraft Holdings. “The one here in Melbourne caught our eye because of the qualified workforces that is available here, especially with the retirement of the Space Shuttle program.”

Yes, unemployment remains uncomfortably high, but it’s down two whole points in a year.

Embraer added 230 jobs. Midair SA, which leases and trades aircraft, hired 450 people in the area. SpaceX won a NASA contract and CEO Elon Musk said he will hire up to 1,000 people in the next four to five years. NASA also tabbed Boeing, which plans to add 550 jobs between now and 2015. These are not fly-by-night companies.