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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June 18, 2019

Famous war-related and “fighting words” quotes uttered on June 18…

By an odd coincidence, a number of famous war-related quotations were uttered on the date June 18.

On June 18, 1757, at the Battle of Kolin, Prussian King Frederick the Great urged his hesitant troops to attack the larger Austrian army by shouting:

       “Rascals, would you live forever?”

Thousands of those rascals didn’t live much longer. The Prussians were defeated and nearly 14,000 were killed or wounded. 

On June 18, 1798, at a dinner in Philadelphia honoring future Chief Justice of the United States John Marshall, a group of U.S. Congressmen were discussing a recent demand made by the government of France.

French vessels had been plundering American ships in a piratical manner. French foreign minister Talleyrand informed American officials that the attacks would be stopped if the United States paid him $250,000 and gave France 50,000 pounds sterling and a $100 million loan. 

As toasts were made at the Congressional dinner, South Carolina Congressman Robert Goodloe Harper sent his own defiant reply to the French with this toast:

      “Millions for defense but not one cent for tribute.”

Harper’s famous quote is sometimes attributed to South Carolina politician Charles C. Pinckney, who denied saying it.

Seventeen years later, it was a French leader’s turn to utter famous words of defiance.

On June 18, 1815, French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s Imperial Guard, led by General Pierre Cambronne, was surrounded by combined British and German forces at the Battle of Waterloo.

When asked to surrender, Cambronne reportedly replied:

       “The Guard dies but never surrenders.”

The French lost at Waterloo, ending Napoleon’s reign as Emperor. And, historians have questioned whether Cambronne actually uttered those famous fighting words. Some reports claimed he simply said “Merde!” (“Shit!”)

On June 18, 1901, German Emperor and King of Prussia Wilhelm II (dubbed “Kaiser Bill” by British and Americans), gave a rousing speech to the North German Regatta Association.

In that speech, he famously used the phrase “a place in the sun,” a German nationalistic phrase first given notoriety by German Chancellor Bernhard von Bulow.

In 1897, von Bulow had defended Germany’s right to a colonial empire by saying that Germans “demand our own place in the sun.”

“Kaiser Bill” consciously echoed those words in his speech on June 18, 1901, saying:

“We have conquered for ourselves a place in the sun. It will now be my task to see to it that this place in the sun shall remain our undisputed possession.”

Flash forward to World War II, when some other famous fighting words were uttered on June 18th.

In the spring of 1940, Adolph Hitler’s Nazi troops invaded and conquered France, setting up a puppet government under Marshal Philippe Pétain.

French General Charles de Gaulle, and other “Free French” forces refused to recognize Pétain’s “Vichy” government and vowed to fight on.

In exile in London, de Gaulle made a radio address on June 18, 1940, famously saying:

      “France has lost a battle. But France has not lost the war!”

On that same day, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill gave one of his most memorable speeches in the House of Commons.

After discussing the fall of France and the recent evacuation of British and French troops from Dunkirk, Churchill noted that Hitler now had England in his sights.

“I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin,” Churchill said. “The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war.

If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.

But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.

Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’

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June 06, 2019

The secret behind the famous phrase “the heart is a lonely hunter”…

On June 4, 1940, Houghton Mifflin published the first novel by the American writer Carson McCullers, a sensitive story about misfits and social outcasts in a Southern mill town titled The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.

The success of McCullers’ book made its title a familiar and oft-quoted phrase.

The novel was later adapted into an excellent movie, as were McCullers’ other best-known works, Reflections In a Golden Eye and The Ballad of the Sad Cafe.

McCullers took the title of her first novel from an old poem by the Scottish poet Fiona Macleod.

This sad, dreamy poem, called “The Lonely Hunter,” is about a girl who mourns her dead lover and thinks about joining him.

It was published in 1896 in the book From the Hills of Dream, a collection of Macleod’s Celtic-flavored poetry.

The line in the poem that inspired McCullers’ book title is the last line in the third verse:

“Green wind from the green-gold branches, what is the song you bring?
What are all songs for me, now, who no more care to sing?
Deep in the heart of Summer, sweet is life to me still,
But my heart is a lonely hunter that hunts on a lonely hill.”

Between 1894 and 1905, many readers in Scotland and Europe loved the romantic poems, novels and stories of Fiona Macleod. She was celebrated as one of the greatest writers associated with the revival of Celtic literature, along with poets like W.B. Yeats.

Oddly, Fiona never made any public appearances. She declined interviews and speaking engagements.

All communications and business with Macleod were conducted through her agent, the Scottish literary critic and biographer William Sharp.

It wasn’t until Sharp died in 1905 that the truth was revealed.

William Sharp was “Fiona Macleod.”

He apparently created his secret identity, in part, to protect the credibility of his more scholarly (and snootier) works — the collections of poems by famous poets that he edited and his series of biographies about poets such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Heinrich Heine and Robert Browning.

Sharp’s deception may also reflect the fact he was, in general, a pretty strange dude.

For example, he is said to have been a member of “The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn,” a little-known cult whose beliefs combine a belief in the “divine feminine” with elements of magic, astrology, Egyptian mysticism, the Qabalah, Gnosticism, Rosicrucianism and other mystic stuff.

When Sharp died, he left behind a letter revealing he wrote the literary works attributed to Fiona Macleod.

When the letter was made public, it sorely distressed “Fiona’s” fans and damaged the reputation of all of Sharp’s books and poems for a while.

But, starting in the 1920s, poems and novels by “Fiona Macleod” steadily became popular again in the UK. Awareness of them also spread to other countries, where they were read by literature buffs like Carson McCullers.

Today, thanks to McCullers’ use of a line by “Fiona” as a book title, most Americans have heard at least one line of his/her poetry.

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