“Out with the old and in with the new” is the attitude at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC), a mentality adopted since the Space Shuttle Program retired in 2011. Letting go of the past is certainly difficult, especially at KSC where programs like Apollo and Shuttle took flight and brought success to America’s Space Program. Now, NASA’s world renowned launch complex on the east coast of Florida is undergoing a multitude of changes to evolve into a multi-user spaceport.
Throughout NASA’s manned and unmanned flight history, one tradition that always held true was the famous launch countdown showcased on the iconic Countdown Clock right outside the KSC Press Site. From Apollo to Shuttle, this massive countdown clock was one of the most-watched timepieces in the world. Soon it will go on display and serve as a historic artifact reminiscent of the “early days” of space exploration at NASA KSC’s neighboring Visitor Complex.
The iconic countdown clock outside of the KSC Press Site has a lot of years behind it. From its first use during the Apollo 12 lunar landing mission all the way through Shuttle, the clock provided millions of viewers the time before and after lift-off. The countdown clock was used for the last time a little over two months ago, when SpaceX launched their fourth Commercial Resupply Services (CRS-4) mission to the International Space Station on Sept. 25, 2014.
The historical clock and flag pole was officially listed in the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) on Jan. 21, 2000. Originally, it was nominated to the NRHP in the context of an important piece of the Apollo program, but continues to hold meaning in the content of the Space Shuttle program and its 135 missions as well.
According to historical record: “The Clock and Flagpole are historically associated with Space Shuttle launches in the minds of people worldwide, as they framed the vehicle during television broadcasts of the launch sequence. The site serves as an integral facility in the dissemination of information to the public about the Space Shuttle missions.”
The gigantic digital display clock shows the exact hours, minutes, and seconds before and after those powerful liftoffs.
Why retire the countdown clock?
The Countdown Clock, situated southeast of the Vehicle Assembly Building, has undergone very few alterations since its installation in 1967.
Historical record states: “[C]irca 1993-94, its original mechanical parallel relays were replaced with solid-state relays and dehumidifiers were installed. Following the 2004 hurricane season, the original glass lenses were replaced with Plexiglass lenses. Finally, in 2010, a new cable and telephone terminal cabinet was installed due to damage from a lightning strike.”
In the November issue of KSC’s Spaceport Magazine, an article written about the retirement of the infamous countdown clock points to the toll Florida’s tropical climate has taken on the timepiece. “Years of hurricanes and harsh Florida humidity and sunshine have taken their toll,” the article opens up with.
Timothy M. Wright of IMCS Timing, Countdown and Photo Services understands the significance of the countdown clock, as well as the need to replace it. The clock has become more difficult to maintain because some of the parts are no longer manufactured.
“Over the years we’ve had to keep circuits up with all the lightning in the area,” explained Wright to Spaceport Magazine. “We’ve also had to keep it dry inside with dehumidifiers.”
A more modern, high-tech version of the old iconic countdown clock will take its place. This one will have more features like a flat screen display and options that allow for more versatility, such as streaming video.
The new countdown clock has a significant role in future space missions. It is also symbolic of an exciting new chapter in NASA history as the agency is preparing for future missions to Mars and deep space.
When will the new countdown clock be put on display?
The new clock may be on display as early as next month for the first flight test of Orion.
Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1), the first flight test of the Orion deep space crew capsule, is less than two weeks away. Slated for Dec. 4, the unmanned capsule will launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex-37B (SLC-37B) atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV Heavy rocket. The purpose of the 4.5-hour flight is to test the spacecraft and see how it performs when journeying to and from Mars and other deep space destinations. The spacecraft will travel approximately 3,600 miles above Earth on a two-orbit mission. (To put that into perspective, imagine 15 times the distance of the International Space Station). This will be the farthest any human spacecraft has traveled into space in over 40 years, since Apollo 17.
Every launch will be accompanied by the traditional ticking-down of NASA’s new $280,000 multimedia display, which will be significantly more up-to-date with today’s technology. It will be similar to the screens seen at sporting venues and have the ability to provide images from a multitude of sources, optional video streaming, and, of course, countdown to launch.
“Visually it will be much brighter and support whatever mission it is called upon,” explained Wright. “Hopefully the new display will be accepted like its predecessor.”
In terms of size, the new countdown clock will measure up similarly to the old one. It will stand 7 feet high and approximately 26 feet wide. Video resolution will be 1280 x 360, not exactly considered “true high-definition,” but the resolution of the new countdown clock is guaranteed to look much more impressive than what originally stood in its place.
The retired countdown clock is close to 6 feet tall (70 inches), 26 feet wide (315 inches), and 3 feet deep. It contains a total of 349 light bulbs with each of the six digits (4 feet high and 2 feet wide) using 56 40-watt light bulbs.
The countdown clock was reportedly powered down for good at 3:45 pm EDT on Nov. 19, 2014.