On April 13, 1970, the Apollo 13 mission to the moon was rocked by an onboard explosion.
The command module went dark. Earth was 200,000 miles away.
An astronaut radioed mission control: “Houston, we have a problem.”
The phrase became a cultural touchstone. Sportscasters say it. Politicians say it. In books, movies, plays and music, it’s shorthand for saying something has gone awry, sometimes terribly.
Except it’s wrong.
Listen to this story on “Retropod”:
The “Houston, we have a problem” declaration is one of the all-time great historical misquotes, with an entertaining, fascinating linguistic backstory so good that it, of course, also turns out to be not quite true.
Up in space that night, after the explosion, this was the actual dialogue between mission control and astronauts Jack Swigert and James Lovell.
Swigert: “Okay, Houston, we’ve had a problem here.”
Mission control: “This is Houston. Say again, please.”
Lovell: “Uh, Houston, we’ve had a problem.”
Search Google for “Houston, we have a problem,” and you’ll get 800,000 results. Search Google for “Okay, Houston, we’ve had a problem here,” and you’ll get 3,180.
So where did “Houston, we have a problem” come from?
Last year, the Houston Chronicle identified the culprit — or at least purported to.
“It was 21 years ago this week that ‘Apollo 13’ starring Tom Hanks and directed by Ron Howard was released into theaters,” the story said. “Soon after, the world became infected with what is easily one of the most annoying catchphrases ever uttered.”
(Poor Houston. Oh how you’ve suffered.)
From a cinematic point of view, the rewritten phrase, spoken by Hanks, made total sense.
Naomi S. Baron, an American University linguist, said that in the movies, you don’t need the “okay,” which is just filler signaling that the speaker of the word “okay” — or “so,” “look” or “well” — is taking control in a conversation. Mission control needed the signal. Movie viewers don’t.
And then there’s the tense.
“It is saying something has happened, and it’s over,” Baron said.
That would make for a very bad bit of dialogue in a suspense movie, according to not just the linguist but one of the screenwriters, William Broyles Jr.
“The past perfect tense wasn’t as dramatic as ‘We have a problem’ — which meant that the problem was happening right then and was continuing, which in fact it was and would shortly cause the mission to abort,” Broyles said in an email.
He takes credit for changing the line for the movie, which chronicles the survival of the three Apollo astronauts everyone feared would die. Baron, who grew up alongside the space program, had gone her life thinking that the movie version was accurate — that is, until she was shown the real dialogue earlier this week to get her expert take.
“I always just assumed it was, ‘Houston, we have a problem,’” she said.
Such is the power of film, Tom Hanks and simple language to catch on in the culture — right?
The phrase goes back even further.
NASA used it in 1983 as the title of its weekly radio program about space history. The proof is in and on the tape:
And the phrase goes back even further than that.
In 1974, Universal Television produced a TV movie about the Apollo 13 mission. Lovell hated it. In a Washington Post article, he called it “fictitious and in poor taste.”
The title of the movie: “Houston, We Have a Problem.”
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