Another famous saying from outer space turns out to be not quite what we think it was. "Houston, we have a problem," is a catchall phrase for SNAFUs that happen even outside of Houston but that is not exactly what the Apollo 13 astronauts actually said when they heard a bang aboard the spaceship. In this case, we know what the original words were without having to resort to an audio analysis decades later.
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.” [emphasis mine]