June 30, 2019

“Houston, we have a problem” — but “failure is not an option”…

On June 30, 1995, the movie Apollo 13 was released to theaters in the US.

This epic film about the near-disastrous Apollo 13 lunar mission in April 1970 was directed by Ron Howard, using a screenplay by William Broyles Jr. and Al Reinert.

Two lines from the film soon became famous quotations: Houston, we have a problem and Failure is not an option.”

Howard and the scriptwriters strove to make the movie fact-based and realistic. And, for a Hollywood movie, it is.

However, the line Houston, we have a problem, which was also used as the movie’s poster tagline, is a misquote of what was actually said. And, Failure is not an option was made up by Broyles.

Here’s the backstory…

Apollo 13 was intended to be the third landing on the moon by American astronauts. The first was Apollo 11 in 1969.

On that mission, when astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the lunar surface, he uttered the memorable words that have traditionally been quoted as: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Armstrong has always claimed that he actually said “That’s one small step for a man...” and that the word a was lost in transmission. A high tech digital analysis of the recording done decades later suggests Armstrong was right.

The commander of the Apollo 13 mission, James A. Lovell, might have said something equally memorable if his mission had succeeded in landing on the moon.

Unfortunately, as Apollo 13 approached the moon on April 13, 1970, an oxygen tank on the craft exploded.

In the movie, Lovell, played by Tom Hanks, tells the Mission Control team at the NASA Space Center in Houston Houston, we have a problem right after the explosion.

That’s close to the facts, but not exactly correct.

As official NASA recordings show, when the explosion occurred, Apollo 13 crew member John L. “Jack” Swigert announced: “Okay, Houston, we’ve had a problem here.”

Astronaut Charlie Duke, who was working in the Control Center that day, responded: “This is Houston. Say again please.”

Then, Lovell repeated: “Houston, we’ve had a problem.” He added: “We’ve had a main B bus undervolt [an electrical problem].”

So, although the film doesn’t show Swigert (played by Kevin Bacon) saying the line first, the words spoken by Hanks are very close to what Lovell said.

Soon after the movie became a huge hit, Houston, we have a problem became — and remains— an idiomatic expression used to indicate any type of problem.

The movie line Failure is not an option is not based on something that was actually said by anyone during the tense four-days it took to bring the Apollo 13 Command Module and its crew safely back to earth.

In the movie, those words were put into the mouth of NASA’s Chief Flight Director Gene Krantz, played by Ed Harris.

They certainly reflect the tireless, dogged determination and efforts of Krantz and the rest of the Houston Mission Control team to bring the Apollo 13 astronauts home safely. And, after the movie made the line famous, Kranz adopted it as the title of his autobiographical memoir.

But, in fact, it’s a fictional quote coined by scriptwriter Broyles.

In an interview years later, Apollo 13 Flight Dynamics Officer Jerry Bostick, recalled his memory of the origin of the phrase.

Bostick said:

In preparation for the movie, the script writers, Al Reinart and Bill Broyles, came down to Clear Lake to interview me on ‘What are the people in Mission Control really like?’ One of their questions was ‘Weren’t there times when everybody, or at least a few people, just panicked?” My answer was ‘No, when bad things happened, we just calmly laid out all the options, and failure was not one of them. We never panicked, and we never gave up on finding a solution.’ I immediately sensed that Bill Broyles wanted to leave and assumed that he was bored with the interview. Only months later did I learn that when they got in their car to leave, he started screaming, ‘That's it! That’s the tag line for the whole movie, Failure is not an option. Now we just have to figure out who to have say it.’ Of course, they gave it to the Kranz character, and the rest is history.”

The explosion in the Apollo 13 oxygen tank blew away much of the crew’s oxygen supply. It also knocked out one engine and the craft’s main supply of electric power.

The story of how the Apollo 13 and Houston crews worked together to find solutions to these problems and successfully sent the craft around the moon and back for a safe landing on April 17, 1970 is truly amazing — and well told in the film.

With just a little less luck and skill, the crew could have suffocated, frozen, been lost in space, or crashed to their deaths.

Fortunately, those failing options were avoided.

The efforts that helped avoid them are memorably heroic. And, the Apollo 13 movie quotes Houston, we have a problem and Failure is not an option have become memorable, oft-used sayings.

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