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The meaning and origin of the expression: Houston, we have a problem

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Houston, we have a problem

Meaning

Originally a genuine report of a life-threatening fault. Now used humorously to report any kind of problem.

Origin

'Houston, we have a problem' is right up there with 'Beam me up Scotty' at the top of the spaceflight-related quotations tree. In fact, both are slight misquotations.

Houston, we have a problemJohn Swigert, Jr. and James Lovell who, with Fred Haise Jr., made up the crew of the US's Apollo 13 moon flight, reported a problem back to their base in Houston on 14th April, 1970. 'Houston, we have a problem' is often credited to the project's leader Lovell. Actually, not only did Lovell not say the phrase, he wasn't even the first not to say it, if you see what I mean.

Swigert and then Lovell (almost) used the phrase to report a major technical fault in the electrical system of one of the Service Module's oxygen tanks:

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.'

Houston, we have a problem'Houston, we have a problem' was used later as the tagline for the 1995 film - Apollo 13. It is the dialogue of the film. edited for dramatic effect, that is now best remembered:

Uh, this is Houston. Uh, say again, please?
Houston, we have a problem. We have a main bus B undervolt.

The issue of the film brought about a renewal in the use of the line and, from then onwards, it began being used in non-spaceflight contexts. The first example of such that I can find is as the title of a none too favourable review in the Los Angles Times, July 1995, of a restaurant called Houstons:

Houston('s), we have a problem - Houston's is yet another slick corporate package, the antithesis of a mom-and-pop restaurant. 

The phrase was used again, in 2001, to report the health and addiction problems of the singer Whitney Houston. More recently still, it has been called out of retirement, as "Wii have a problem", for use in stories about injuries caused by over-enthusiastic use of the Nintendo game console.

See other well-known misquotations.