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What Inspired NASA to Use a Countdown for Rocket Launches?

NASA retired a historic piece of equipment on December 1, 2014, at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It wasn’t a rocket or even a deep space nine-iron. It was the original countdown clock, a large analog display the size of a titan’s wristwatch that stood across the river from the rocket launch site and patiently counted off the seconds before blastoff. What inspired NASA to use a countdown for rocket launches?

NASA used a countdown for rocket launches after being inspired by Fritz Lang’s film “Frau im Mond.” NASA adopted the countdown not only to help technicians synchronize but also discovered that announcing the countdown created anticipation for those watching at home.

How Did Fritz Lang Come Up with a Countdown For Rockets in His Movies?

Die Frau im Mond was written by Thea von Harbou, Lang’s longtime partner and his then-wife. The two later separated, after von Harbou decided to throw her lot in with the Nazis. The novel, which follows a group of scheming moon prospectors, is a rollercoaster ride of love triangles, business intrigue, and lunar gunfights, and Lang set out to adapt it into a film. 

Von Harbou had thoroughly researched spaceflight while writing the novel, and Lang, wanting his picture to be equally founded in scientific possibility, enlisted Hermann Oberth, the Transylvanian instructor who had initiated the whole space mania, as the film’s scientific advisor. Oberth headed straight towards Berlin.

The result was a groundbreaking partnership between art and science. For each challenge that the spacefaring characters faced, rocket design, oxygen shortages, and zero gravity. Oberth would compute the most likely answer, and Lang and his crew would put it into action. Other German rocket enthusiasts, such as Willy Ley and Max Valier, flocked to the set to add their two cents and watch their wildest fantasies come true. 

Lang felt unconstrained by his ostensibly limited budget; in one notable line item, he ordered 40 carloads of sea sand to be trucked in and roasted to create the ultimate moonscape. The scientists’ computations and Lang’s creativity were the only constraints. (Source: Atlas Obscura

NASA Using the Countdown 

Lang and his advisors devised a variety of space-faring characteristics that would subsequently appear on actual launchpads. The astronauts are held in place by footstraps, while the rocket itself has numerous stages and engines that it jettisons one at a time, foreshadowing modern designs. Another foresight decision was made during the editing process. 

The launch itself is a tense occasion deserving of a dramatic buildup. Lang was adamantly anti-sound and refused to add any effects, so revving up the blasters was out of the question. Instead, he opted for a less evident suspense device: intertitles.

As the astronauts lie on their bunks, eyes wide and mouths clenched, the video cuts to an announcement: Noch 10 Sekunden! There are only 10 seconds left! Noch 6 Sekunden! says the mission leader as he holds the firing lever.

The numbers grow more significant, covering the screen: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, JETZT! Now! The lever is lowered, and the rocket shoots out of the water. It still gets the heart racing nearly a century later.
The film’s space consultants took what they learned from the setback to the Society for Space Travel, where they discovered that loudly timing launches to the second was not only theatrical but also functional. When NASA launched its first successful satellite, Explorer 1, in 1958, newsreels showing the event said that the moment has arrived, and the countdown has reached zero! (Source: Atlas Obsura)

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