We’ve all heard the idiom, ‘Houston, we have a problem.’ But there’s an interesting story behind how it fell into common use.
When you hear the phrase, “Houston, we have a problem,” you’re hearing an idiom. People use idioms to express ideas in unique ways.
We define idioms as phrases that have a meaning that, when taken out of context, may not immediately be clear.
If you’re a history buff, you probably know where it came from. But there’s more to the story.
It started with astronauts.
Apollo 13 launched on April 11, 1970. Astronauts John Swigert, Fred Haise and James Lovell set out to land on the moon. But two days after that launch, according to NASA’s official account, something went terribly wrong.
The crew appeared on a television broadcast designed to demonstrate how they handled weightlessness. At 9:08 p.m., less than 10 minutes after that broadcast ended, an oxygen tank blew up, causing a second tank to fail. The command module lost normal supplies of electricity, light and water.
The astronauts called “Houston,” which was a nickname for mission control. Specifically, it referred to the Mission Operations Control Room in the Mission Control Center at the Manned Spacecraft Center. That facility is now known as the Johnson Space Center.
Houston realized it had a major problem with lives on the line. It had to devise a way to get the astronauts home alive. They immediately began doing tests to find a way to make repairs to the damaged craft and relay that information to the astronauts.
But that wasn’t exactly what they said.
At 9:08 p.m. on April 13, 1970, the crew felt a sharp bang and vibration. Swigert saw a warning light and then said the magical line.
But it wasn’t quite the same. What he was was, “Houston, we’ve had a problem here.”
In fact, that line was said twice. NASA responded, “This is Houston. Say again?”
Lovell then repeated Swigart’s line: “Houston, we’ve had a problem.”
But when the movie Apollo 13 was made back in 1995, they changed that famous line. It became, “Houston, we’ve got a problem.”
And from there, it became a part of Americana.
As an idiom, it’s no longer about outer space.
When the explosion happened, the phrase had meaning within that specific situation. Outside of that scenario, it became used to refer to any crisis.
I’ve heard the phrase used a few times over the years, but never by a bonafide astronaut. (I somehow manage to never travel in the same circles as astronauts, after all.)
So from an adjustment to a historical quote came an idiom that anyone can use and immediately communicate that there’s trouble.
Funny how English works, isn’t it?