In the morning hours of Friday, Dec. 5, the world’s most powerful active rocket took off into overcast skies at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. This marked Exploration Flight Test (EFT-1) of the Orion spacecraft, NASA’s new multi-purpose crew vehicle, propelled by a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta-IV Heavy rocket. The historic first flight of the Orion spacecraft coincided with the first official use of the new NASA countdown clock at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) Press Site, and the decision to replace the old iconic NASA countdown clock with a newer version is an example of the forward-thinking changes being put in place at KSC. The new clock showed up just in time for the first flight of Orion, counting down the minutes until lift-off on its LED display.
The new countdown clock counted down to the powerful lift-off of Orion at 7:05 a.m. EST and concluded 4.5-hours later in the Pacific Ocean around 11:30 a.m. EST (8:30 a.m. PST). The successful maiden flight of Orion and first launch countdown on the new countdown clock are significant symbols of NASA’s new chapter in human space exploration.
At a quick glance, the new generation clock looks familiar to the old clock; however, it displays much more than just the 4-foot-high, 2-foot-wide numbers that captivated those who watched an Apollo or shuttle launch on television. The new countdown display at the KSC Press Site has a screen about 26 feet wide by 7 feet high. It also boasts a widescreen capability utilizing the latest in outdoor LED display technology. As noted in our recent story regarding the retirement of the iconic NASA countdown clock, the $280,000 display will look like something one would see at sporting venues rather than a set of clicking lights and numbers.
The new clock boasts modern technology that can provide images from a variety of sources, along with the precise countdown launch time. Video streaming is another perk to the new display, as it is capable of showing NASA’s entire pre-launch program. Those watching can follow along with the countdown with a live feed of the rocket on the display. If the numbers stop counting down, spectators won’t have to question if it was a technical problem or built-in hold because they can quickly know just from watching the screen. This convenient new feature was useful during the two attempts to launch the Orion spacecraft on the morning of Dec. 4 and the morning of Dec. 5.
“I think this is an upgrade that will really surprise news media with how much more information they will get to see while they are outside to watch the launch,” said George Diller in a NASA press release. Diller is a NASA Public Affairs officer who has contributed launch commentary on many countdowns for space shuttles and expendable rockets. “It’s really neat to be able to see the launch pad up close on the monitor while still experiencing the magic of seeing the countdown and then the rocket rise above the tree line.”
During past launches, the news media, families of KSC employees, and NASA guests would follow the progress of the countdown on the grassy field around the turn basin while gazing out at the launch pad looking for the rocket to take off. The tradition still continued for the first flight of Orion, but those watching also had a live view of the rocket on the display.
The completion of the new display came about a week before the long anticipated launch of Orion. During that time the new countdown clock was properly functioning, showing NASA TV images along with a test countdown in the lower corner of the display.
The retired countdown clock once captivated the attention of millions of viewers around the world during Apollo and shuttle launches on television. Members of the media, NASA employees, and other visitors made this iconic countdown clock a must-have photo as proof of their visit to the Kennedy Space Center. The clock was also the centerpiece of many Hollywood scenes with its large numbers helping to create tension as the pending launch crew closer.
On Jan. 21, 2000, the historical NASA countdown clock and flagpole were officially listed in the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP). The two icons were nominated because of their important presence during the Apollo program, but continued to be of importance to the space shuttle program and its 135 missions as well.
The historic clock ticked-down the time of missions ranging from landing on the Moon to Skylab crew launches to the historic liftoff of the Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1975, significant to the cooperation that is now in full effect in the form of the International Space Station and important research on board. Every space shuttle mission and many planetary probes and Earth-focused observatories lifted off with the old NASA countdown clock ticking away in the background.
The previous clock was extremely outdated and difficult to maintain. It displayed the wear and tear of Florida weather and the damage from three hurricanes in 2004. Important components of the clock were no longer being manufactured—therefore, should something break or malfunction, replacing the part would be near impossible. Though many were upset with the decision to replace the iconic countdown clock, there was no way one could deny that the timepiece had surely seen better days. It was powered down for the final time at 3:45 p.m. EDT on Nov. 19, 2014, with no better time to replace it than when the entirety of KSC is transforming into a spaceport of modern abilities and infrastructures.
The new high-resolution, flat screen NASA countdown clock performed flawlessly on both launch attempts of the Orion spacecraft. While the newer addition may take some time to get used to, those who found sentimental value in the older clock can rest assured knowing that the iconic timepiece will be well-preserved and put to good use at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.
The new home for the retired NASA countdown clock will tell the story and share the excitement surrounding a launch. It will also begin the countdown to explore KSC as part of the entry experience for KSCVC guests beginning sometime in early 2015.
The new display will play an important role in the new age of space exploration, as it will be counting down historic missions in the future, as well as others mentioned in the NASA press release.
“The new display is expected to become just as ingrained in the public’s awareness as Orion progresses from unscrewed flight tests to deep space missions taking astronauts past the moon,” added Diller. “The display will also chronicle launch days for the private companies working with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program to launch astronauts from American soil to the International Space Station in 2017.”