WTF Fun Fact 12567 – The Origin of the Countdown

3…2…1…we have liftoff. NASA may not have stolen the words for their spaceship launches, but they did lift the idea from a sci-fi film.

Of course, countdown clocks allow everyone involved to ensure they’re on the same page at the same time, but a big part of the countdown is building suspense for those watching. And that’s why NASA decided to make the final countdown a major part of their televised launches.

But they didn’t come up with the idea on their own. Like so much technology, the concept originated in a 1929 sci-fi film titled Frau im Mond by Fritz Lang. Even more unexpected – it was a silent film!

The idea for the story came from the novel Die Frau im Mond, by Thea von Harbou (Lang’s wife at the time). According to Atlas Obscura: “The book, which follows a group of backstabbing moon prospectors, is a rollercoaster ride of love triangles, business intrigue, and lunar gunfights…” 

Lang needed the film to be a hit. The “talkie” was becoming more and more popular, so he needed a way to make his silent films just as engaging. That’s when he settled on the countdown. (Another fun fact: before Die Frau im Mond, books and movies that involved a shuttle launch usually used countUPs.)

Atlas Obscura explained further how this influenced NASA: “The film’s space advisors brought lessons they learned from the film set back with them to the Society for Space Travel, where they found that loudly timing launches to the second was not only dramatic, but helpful. When NASA launched its first successful satellite, Explorer 1, in 1958, newsreels broadcasting the event breathlessly announced, ‘the moment is at hand, the countdown reaches zero!'”

The breathless countdown worked for Lang – his was the highest-grossing film of the year in 1929. And we can’t imagine a NASA launch without the countdown (something we completely took for granted). – WTF Fun Fact

You can check out the film scene yourself (and no, that’s not the original music!):

Source: “NASA Stole the Rocket Countdown From a 1929 Fritz Lang Film” — Atlas Obscura


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