Last space shuttle launch bittersweet for photographer

At 11:26 a.m. Pacific Time today, a voice from a Florida control room is set to count backward from 10 for the last time.

If so, it might be the last time Americans see a billowing explosion of exhaust underneath a space shuttle rocket as it breaks the bonds of Earth for a trip into orbit.

The expected launch of the shuttle Atlantis from Kennedy Space Center today -- the last launch of a shuttle -- marks the end of 50-year era of human space flight by the U.S.

It's a bittersweet day for Gary White, a Tri-City photographer who started his career straight out of art school shooting pictures of wind tunnel tests of space shuttle models in 1974.

White had just graduated from Brooks Institute of Photographic Arts & Sciences in Santa Barbara, Calif., when he landed an internship and then a job at Moffett Field near San Francisco.

The Apollo moon missions were winding down, and the space shuttle program was on the horizon as the United States' next great foray into the final frontier.

Part of his job involved taking pictures of space shuttle models as they were subjected to high-velocity winds to simulate re-entry into Earth's atmosphere.

White told the Herald the friction in the wind tunnels was so strong he sometimes could see the model's tiles glow red.

He only worked on the project for a few months before taking a job at Battelle in Richland in the fall of 1974, but his connection to the space shuttle program has lingered.

He told the Herald on Thursday that he was feeling nostalgic as NASA prepared Atlantis for its last flight, in part for things he always meant to do but somehow never did.

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