We've all seen the classic countdown, you know, in every film about astronauts, every TV documentary about astronauts, every cartoon about astronauts, and even on I Dream of Jeannie. And live from Kennedy Space Center, too!
10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 …Blast off!
Well, interestingly enough, the creator of the classic countdown didn't work at NASA or Cape Kennedy. The creator of the countdown was actually a motion picture director, His name was Fritz Lang.
Lang's claim to fame hitherto was the film M (1931) starring Peter Lorre. He also directed another well-known silent film called Metropolis (1926). Both films are now considered classics by film scholars and movie fans the world over.
In the late 1920s, Lang directed one of the very first science fiction films. It was called Lady on the Moon (1929), sometimes known as The Woman in the Moon. A highlight of the film was the launch of a mammoth rocket which looked uncannily like the ones we later launched from Cape Canaveral.
It occurred to Lang that suspense could be created by switching from the conventional. So instead of the expected "one-two-three" count preceding the movie rocket launch, Lang used exactly the reverse. Thus, the first countdown occurred 80 years ago. In a sci-fi movie!
Soon science imitated art and the reverse countdown, as we know it, became standard operating procedure on all rocket launches.
When Hitler and the Nazis came to power in Germany, they used some of Lang's other rocket launch props in their experiments. Ironically, this occurred after Lang himself had been forced to flee Nazi Germany for his life. The generally accepted (but unconfirmed) story is that Lang was summoned to the office of HItler's Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels, in 1934.
Goebbels had two messages for Lang. The first was that his film Dr. Mabuse (1933) was to be banned in Germany because of "incitement to public disorder." The second message was that Goebbels was so impressed by Lang's films, he wanted to make him the head of a German film studio.
Lang, having a Jewish background, must have been scared out of his wits during that meeting! He had actually already planned to leave Nazi Germany, but he now realized he had to get out as soon as possible. Since the meeting with Goebbels ran so late, the banks in Germany were all closed by the time it ended. So, having no choice, and fearing the "discovery" of his Jewish blood, Lang fled that very night -with no money.
Lang's wife, Thea Von Harbou, had sympathized with HItler's cause and joined the Nazi Party in 1932. The two divorced in 1933.
Frau im Mond (1929)