40 years after Apollo 13, five words remain linked to city
April 12, 2010
Moments after Apollo 13 crew members heard a sharp bang, the phrase that Space City can't seem to shake entered the atmosphere: “Houston, we've had a problem.”
Forty years ago today, a loud bang and vibration transformed a smooth flight to the moon into one of NASA's most successful failures. We remember the sentence that captured that catastrophe as “Houston, we have a problem,” but the correct version uses the past tense.
Presumably, some people knew and even used the phrase in the years after the Apollo 13 crew members miraculously — and heroically — made their way back to Earth.
But it was Ron Howard's 1995 film, Apollo 13, that cemented the misquoted version in our minds.
“The movie simplified the sentence for dramatic purposes,” says Charles Dove, director of Rice Cinema and a film lecturer at Rice University. “Most of the big 20th century phrases come from film.”
Indeed, “Houston, we have a problem” is No. 50 on the American Film Institute's list of top 100 movie quotes, behind other catch phrases we like even better: “Here's looking at you, kid” (No. 5); “Go ahead, make my day” (No. 6); and “You talking to me?” (No. 10).
Mother of all chichés
In real-life, the space scene went something like this: Jack Swigert — played by Kevin Bacon in the movie — saw a warning light that accompanied the sharp bang and said, “Houston, we've had a problem here.” When Houston base asked for clarification, Jim Lovell — played by Tom Hanks in the movie — repeated, “Houston, we've had a problem.”
Today, the phrase has become the mother of all clichés, repeated and tweaked ad nauseum. It has been:
• A headline for stories about anything that goes right or wrong in Houston — particularly in politics or sports. “Houston, we have a pennant” was a Chronicle headline in 2005.
• A headline for gossip about singer Whitney Houston, whose had her share of problems (husband, drugs) in recent years.
• A song title by The Queers and by Oliver Twizt; an album title from Chingo Bling; a CD compilation from Lil' Flip.
• A funny quip on T-shirts.
• A book by Houston author Gwendolyn Zepeda: Houston, We Have a Problema.
And more. So much more.
Dove says the strength of the phrase comes from its brevity and simplicity.
“There's a thing that Tom Wolfe talks about in The Right Stuff,” Dove says. “He attributes it to Chuck Yeager — that drawly, safe, comforting way of talking that airplane pilots use when speaking to passengers.”
When you consider the truth behind Apollo 13's memorable phrase — three men hurtling through space, 200,000 miles from Earth, losing electricity, water and oxygen —you realize just how cool it is.
“Houston, we've had a problem” may be the biggest understatement of the 20th century.