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I have heard this phrase many times in movies and people who use it as a pun in forums.

  • What does this mean?

  • Where did it originate from?

  • When do we use it?

There is a Wiktionary entry for a slightly different form of the phrase that explains some of this ("Houston, we have a problem"). However, I feel that the wiki page has little information in it. Besides, it's not uncommon to get some other/additional interesting facts about such 'obvious' things in this community.

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  • @sumelic Yes, that sounds like a nice idea but I felt that the wiki page had little information in it. Besides, it's not uncommon to get some other/additional interesting facts about such 'obvious' things in this community. Commented Sep 25, 2015 at 8:42
  • OK. Wanting to get more facts is perfectly fine! It's just that I have learned, based on my own experience in this community, that it's important to "show your research" when asking a question, especially if you already know part of the answer. Do you mind if I edit your question to add both the Wiktionary link, and your reason for wanting more information?
    – herisson
    Commented Sep 25, 2015 at 8:46
  • @sumelic If the question would still be considered as not being off-topic, please go ahead. I would be obliged :) Commented Sep 25, 2015 at 8:51
  • I did not know what other information existed to begin with and imagined many facts would surface up once a discussion begins. That's why I chose to ask the meaning and origin itself and thought that people would automatically reveal related anecdotes they might have in mind. If it has to get closed, it probably will. Something beyond my control. Commented Sep 25, 2015 at 9:09
  • hmm okay! I will keep that in mind. Commented Sep 25, 2015 at 10:02

2 Answers 2

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Originally a genuine report of a life-threatening fault. Now used humorously to report any kind of problem. Note that, given the importance of the event, the expression is used humorously in many languages, not only in English.

  • The origin can be traced to the phrase in past tense

    • Swigert: 'Okay, Houston, we've had a problem here.'

    • Houston: 'This is Houston. Say again please.'

    • Lovell: 'Houston, we've had a problem. We've had a main B bus undervolt.'

  • that was used by the crew of the Apollo 13 moon flight, to report a major technical problem back to their Houston base on the 14th April, 1970.

The phrase is normally misquoted:

  • like "Houston, we have a problem" from the movie "Apollo 13":

(The Phrase Finder)

The phrase is considered to be one of the most famous understatment in history, from it probably its humorous usage afterwards:

  • Talk about a huge understatement, Jim Lovell's famous quote aboard Apollo 13 after an Oxygen tank exploded of simply "Houston, we've had a problem" is probably the most famous space quote ever.

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    This is probably one of the most unique idioms in the English language, in that its etymology can be traced to a specific event and the time identified to the exact second. (And millions of people still alive observed the original event "live" and can clearly remember it.)
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Sep 25, 2015 at 12:20
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I note, as a minor bit of factual infill, that the astronauts addressed their transmissions from outer space to "Houston" because NASA's manned spacecraft center was in the metropolitan Houston area (actually, southeast of most of Houston in the vicinity of Clear Lake City, Texas). Unlike most very large U.S. cities, Houston has avoided being entirely ringed by suburbs, by repeatedly buying outlying strips of land that enable it to outflank and surround such suburbs as if it were a giant amoeba and they were tasty morsels of food.

NASA's flight command center, renamed the Lyndon Johnson Space Center in 1973, was the home base for "mission control" on all of the space missions, though the spacecraft were actually launched from Capre Canaveral (aka Cape Kennedy), Florida. By common agreement, communications were generalized as being to and from "Houston"—which is why the idiom isn't "Clear Lake City, we have a problem."

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