I was listening to the radio today, and happened to have it on at the exact moment the shuttle took off. NPR covered it live, I suspect mainly because it occurred at the same time as their hourly news update. I'm a space geek from way back - well, not WAY back given my relative youth, so that by the time I was watching the original Star Trek it was in reruns, not original run. (Though I have to say I think the show holds up pretty well despite its age.)
It occurred to me that the simple act of counting backwards, from ten to one, has been forever altered for all the generations that came during and after the great space race. Prior to that, I don't think it had any significance. The only other counting I can think of that has some sort of cultural significance is the ten paces for dueling, which of course was a count up. And I'm not sure if it was really that prevalent, or if my view on history is simply skewed by all those hours spent watch Bugs Bunny.
(Hey, Bugs taught me opera and to this day, whenever I hear The Barber of Seville by Rossini, the lyrics I inevitably hear in my head go: "Let me cut your mop, let me shave your top, d-a-intilly." That Wagner has been similarly introduced and influenced should go without saying.)
But since the 1950's or so, and certainly since the 1960's when the whole world tuned in, that steady, backwards count has come to symbolize one thing above all others - namely a rocket launch. The phrase "lift-off" seems to naturally follow the number one, and the sequence feels incomplete without it. It creates a sense of anticipation wholly out of proportion with the simple numbers involved, and can invoke - in me at least - both a sense of wonder, exploration, and vicarious nostalgia.
I didn't live through the first space race, and the last trip to the moon finished before I was born. In theory we are heading for a new era in space exploration, as we head to Mars. I look forward to those new days when space launches are covered by the news not just when they happen at the top of the hour; when we wait and listen with anticipation as those ten simple numbers roll back in stately fashion to that moment when rockets roar and the ground shakes, and we reach for the stars again.