Liftoff! The Origin Of The Countdown

What’s the most thrilling part of rocketry? Well, the liftoff, naturally. But what about the sweet anticipation in those tense moments leading up to liftoff? In other words, the countdown. Where did it come from?

Far from being simply a dramatic device, the countdown clock serves a definite purpose — it lets the technicians and the astronauts synchronize their actions during the launch sequence. But where did the countdown  — those famed ten seconds of here we go! that seem to mark the point of no return — come from? Doesn’t it all seem a little theatrical for scientists?

It may surprise you to learn that neither technicians nor astronauts conceived of the countdown. In their book, “Lunar Landings and Rocket Fever: Rediscovering Woman in the Moon”, media scholars Tom Gunning and Katharina Loew reveal that a little-known Fritz Lang movie called Woman In the Moon both “predicted the future of rocketry” and “played an effective role in its early development”.

Rocket Fever

Gerda Maurus in Woman In the Moon. Image via the New York Times

After Metropolis, which was a box office flop in its time, Fritz Lang needed to make a hit, or his production company was going to let him go. To compound the problem, Lang was still making silent films when talkies were taking off.

Lang turned to the German escapist novels of the 1920s, which were highly focused on the idea of rocketry and space travel. One bestseller was a popularized version of a Transylvanian school teacher’s dissertation, which argued that space travel was scientifically within reach.

For his next film, Lang turned to a a spaceflight novel written by his then-wife Thea von Harbou, who had researched the subject quite thoroughly. Lang took the making of this film seriously, wanting everything to be grounded in what was actually possible given the limitations of science at the time.

To that end, he hired Hermann Oberth, the teacher who arguably kicked off rocket fever, as his scientific guide. Obstacle by obstacle, Lang and Oberth discussed the particulars of space travel — building a rocket, oxygen issues, and dealing with zero gravity — and came up with a scientifically-grounded way of presenting each on film.

Life Imitates Art

Image via Atlas Obscura

While making the movie, Lang and his advisors laid the foundation for several spaceflight specifics that came to fruition in real life. Just like in the movie, the astronauts are strapped down to keep from floating, and the rocket has several stages that get jettisoned one after the other. And then, of course, there’s the countdown.

Since this was a silent film, there could be no revving engine noises to build excitement, so Lang used intertitles — those cards you see with text on them in silent films.

As the astronauts lie waiting, the screen cuts to a card — ’10 seconds remaining!’ The man at the switch readies himself. More cards come up, the numbers getting larger and larger. ‘5, 4, 3, 2, 1, Now!’

Or Did Fritz Lang Steal It?

Many historians credit Lang with the invention of the countdown, but Lang may have inadvertently snagged it from an 1897 science fiction story called “The Great Crellin Comet” aka “The World Peril of 1910” by British writer George Griffith. In the story, a group of people try to divert a comet from hitting Earth by firing a cannon at it. In Griffith’s story, the countdown ends with the word Now!, just as it does in Woman In the Moon.

No matter who thought of it first, the countdown is arguably inseparable from rockery and spaceflight. After all, it makes anything more exciting, including something that’s already really exciting in the first place.

18 thoughts on “Liftoff! The Origin Of The Countdown

  1. What is the point of this ?
    Aside from prescient sci fi authors forecasting future tech,
    the term “necessity is the mother of invention” comes to mind.

    Of course you need a “count down”.
    You need to transition the vehicle to internal power, internal control, etc.
    So time to spool up those boxes is a given.

    This is like saying the preflight checks before an airliner departs
    the gate is superflous and only to annoy the passengers. Never
    mind the fact the flight crew needs to enter FMS data, run their
    checklist, etc. All the while the gate departure clock and “launch
    window” for their filed flight plan is ticking away.

    Again, “necessity – the mother of invention”.

    1. The “of course” comment comes from a position of hindsight.

      When you invent a new thing, it doesn’t come with instructions. In the process of designing and building it, you will derive some initial steps, but you won’t know all of them. You don’t even know what might fail, or need to be checked. And nothing tells you that the checking may need to be done in a specific order. And it certainly wasn’t obvious to the first inventor that the checklist could or should be synchronized to a clock.

      If you invent a new thing today, knowing that you’ll need a checklist and possibly a countdown is building on the shoulders of the giants that first invented the concept.

      1. Even a microprocessor, ASIC, FPGA, whatever – designer or engineer
        knows from the very onset that it’s required to get precise timing on
        all the system elements operational – even if it’s a 1 mS delay to bring
        up a synthesizer before it can acquire PLL lock (random example and
        timing figure), this has to happen before you can get a signal to the
        exciter, to the RF PA, etc, etc. It’s sequential timing. It’s a given. So
        you’re having a “count down” on a macro scale.

        If the designer or builder does not know, then he/she needs to go
        back and refresh their understanding of basic concepts (before they
        really hose things up).

        I once had a PLC programmer create havoc at a site by doing tasks
        out of sequence that essentially created a hazardous condition for
        anyone working in the vicinity of the machinery. Something they
        absolutely should have known ahead of time. It’s not “rocket science”
        (their not deriving Konstantin’s rocket equation). This is all common
        sense stuff (like humans should not eat Tide Pods).

    2. True, though an airliner doesn’t do a countdown and liftoff timed to the second. Of course a plane doesn’t *have* to take off at a particular moment in time the way that most rockets generally do, so a countdown to the second isn’t necessary or helpful.

    3. The countdown starts _after_ all that other crap is done. You mention “checklists”. All those other tasks are done based on checklists, _not_ some idiot counting backwards.

  2. Anytime a team has to lift or push there is a need for split second action that has to behave as one, weather it’s one shot acts or setup a rhythm for sustained efforts. I’ve moved pianos and know where just 2 crew and one more with the dolly have it going on. Many military tactics make much of timing not by clock events but coordinated fire. Like Romans the 0 gets left out.

    Ready, three, two, ugh! Done.

  3. Sorry to be over-correct ;-)


    The “countdown” for a rocket launch does not only consist of the last 10 seconds counted out loud before liftoff – but lasts from several hours to days, depending on the complexity of the mission. It’s a long series of precisely timed steps to get the rocket ready for launch.

    And the Russians don’t even count those 10 seconds out loud…

    1. Russians don’t even share online start-up videos, because they are scared from free speech.
      Countdown is nice dramatisation effect like on New year. Everyone knows that New year is coming, but the last 10 seconds are simply fascinating.

  4. Interesting history. I think most people get it wrong though. It’s not about the stuff that happens before launch. Yes, pre-launch all needs timed and sequenced. But, that’s generally not critical. What matters is zero. The rest of the flight needs to be timed exactly. They have a launch WINDOW. They can pause the count down before zero; but never after zero. Once those engines fire, the timing is locked down to a precise set of events.

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