In the 1920s, Germany was obsessed with building rockets.
After WW1, they’d been banned by the Treaty of Versailles from developing armaments, so they disguised their rockets in any peaceful form they could: rocket sleds, rocket cars, rocket gliders, even rocket mail-delivery.
So Fritz Lang made the film: Die Frau im Mond (The Woman in the Moon).
This film was an early form of science-fiction about a rocket to the moon.
As the technology didn’t exist, Lang had to predict it, so he employed Germany’s leading exponent of rockets, Herman Oberth.
Oberth and Lang got many things correct ahead of reality: astronauts floating gravity-free, booster rockets firing in different stages.
But the part that had the biggest impact on the future of space travel wasn’t scientific at all, it was purely artistic.
A crude form of sound had been introduced into movies in 1927 just two years earlier, in the film The Jazz Singer starring Al Jolson singing ‘Mammy’.
It was the first time audiences had heard sound synchronised to moving pictures.
But the sound equipment was crude, experimental, and hard to get hold of.
Fritz Lang needed something to give his film drama, especially during the launch sequence.
Previously, any launch sequence started like a race, “One…Two…Three…GO”.
But Lang wanted his launch to be more powerful as it was the high point of the film.
So, not having sound, he decided to reverse the launch sequence.
Instead of having a count-UP he’d have a count-DOWN.
As the astronauts were waiting in their bunks, the title card read “Noch 10 sekunden” (10 seconds to go).
Then the next cards filled the screen: “5”, then “4”, then “3”, then “2”, then “1”, and finally “JETZT” (now).
The count-down built tension much more than the previous way.
Instead of just counting “1…2…3…GO” which sounded like starting a race, the count-down now felt ominous, inevitable, much more dramatic.
Even without sound it gave Fritz Lang the dramatic high-point he wanted.
But more than that, it was so influential that everyone began to use it for their own rocket launches, all across Germany.
Then, because of the film, its influence spread outside Germany and the count-down became the accepted way to launch anything important: detonations, parachute-jumps, invasions.
What Lang had intended purely to build tension in his film, became a crucial part of the convention of rocket launches everywhere.
In fact NASA’s countdown begins 43 hours ahead of launch, ticking off every second.
NASA even has a massive digital countdown clock for viewers on the ground.
Space launches from Russia, France, the UK, India, and China all began the same way.
No one would think of launching a space mission with the words “One…Two…Three…GO”.
And the fascinating thing is, it wasn’t a scientific mind that thought of it, it was an artistic mind, a film director who wanted a bit more drama so he reversed the process.
Needing drama, meant he started with the human mind not with scientific accuracy.
Consequently, human minds experienced it as much more powerful and emphatic.
Consequently, it overrode contemporary protocol and became the new convention.
Now no-one can imagine a time when the count-down wasn’t the accepted method.
Because the mind takes precedence over mechanics.
It isn’t rational, logical science that determines how people will think or what will catch on.
It’s things like drama and excitement and tension and involvement.
Because even rocket scientists are people.