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NASA gets fancy digital countdown display, retires Apollo clock

NASA's new countdown clock for space missions is a lot like a football stadium display and way more advanced than the old analog one it's replacing.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
2 min read

The new countdown display undergoes testing. NASA

NASA is a master of anticipation. There's a dramatic countdown before every launch. We all know the famous sequence: "10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 0... liftoff!"

If you've ever watched footage of an Apollo or shuttle launch from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, then you should be familiar with the space agency's famous countdown clock, an analog behemoth that accompanied the launch of many key space missions.

With work on the next-generation human spaceflight capsule Orion in full swing, NASA decided it was time to also bring the countdown clock into the modern era. The old analog clock has been removed and replaced with a 26-foot-wide digital display that can broadcast video as well as handle countdown duties. NASA describes it as being more like a stadium television, rather than a wristwatch.

"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," says NASA Public Affairs officer George Diller.

The new outdoor LED display cost $280,000 and will be able to broadcast footage of prelaunch programs. If a delay occurs in the countdown, observers will be able to follow along with what's happening. The display has a video resolution of 1,280x360 and is 7 feet tall.

The Apollo-era analog clock will now be relegated to the nostalgia bins after decades of service. It survived hurricanes and oversaw the send-offs to moon landings, shuttle missions and countless space probes. The clock can look forward to a dignified retirement at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, where it will be on display starting in early 2015.

The changing of the clocks comes at a fitting time as NASA prepares Orion for its first space test flight on Thursday. The analog clock may have seen us to the moon, but the digital clock may well see us all the way to Mars.

NASA's old countdown clock
The old analog clock is going into retirement. NASA/Frankie Martin