It's one of the most famous timepieces in history that's been seen by billions of people all over the world, yet, though it's big, its name isn't Ben. It's the countdown clock at Cape Canaveral, Florida, which has sat in the foreground of historic space mission launches since it was installed in 1969 during the heyday of the Apollo program. But after almost half a century of service, NASA is replacing it with a high-tech LED version that makes its public debut on Thursday during the launch of the Orion EFT-1 mission.
Those of us of a certain age remember the launch of the Apollo missions like it was yesterday. Parked in front of low-definition televisions, we would experience the tension as the countdown ran towards the moment when three men atop a skyscraper-sized ship full of explosives would rise into the sky on what seemed like an impossible tail of fire. What usually didn't register was the countdown clock itself, which was set in front of the press stands so the TV and newspaper crews could get perfect shots of the liftoff with the clock on one side and the American flag on the other.
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That clock, with its Mad Men era styling counted down the seconds for the Apollo, Skylab, Apollo-Soyuz, Space Shuttle, and other launches over the decades, but wear and tear, the Florida weather, and the march of technology has finally taken its toll and the giant digital display has been retired.
In its place is a new display that went into service just a week ago in anticipation of EFT-1. Sitting in exactly the same spot as its predecessor, the new US$280,000 display measuring 26 ft by 7 ft (8 m by 2 m) isn't just a number panel, but a 1280 x 360 resolution video display that is not only much brighter than the old display, but also much more versatile. Using the latest in LED technology, it not only shows the countdown time, but also images and streaming videos to keep the media in the loop with the reasons behind any unexpected glitches and delays.
According to NASA, the replacement of the clock is part of a general upgrade of the Kennedy Space Center as it brings more modern technology online. The new clock replaces the old 40-watt incandescent bulbs with LEDs, and uses GPS signals to coordinate timing instead of the old Central Instrumentation Facility at Kennedy.
The old clock is such a piece of history that it is not headed for the scrapheap. While the original concrete base is being used to house the new clock, the old timer will be reassembled at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, where it will go on display next year.
"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," says George Diller, a NASA Public Affairs officer. "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."
The video below explains the technology behind the old countdown clock.