When Houston Is The One With A Problem: “Houston, We’ve Got A Problem,” 1974

Ah yes, when the dreaded chest pain strikes while you’re wearing a Speedo: Hot Mess Flight “Steve Bell” aka Robert Culp gets ready to writhe upon the ground in very little clothing. You’re welcome. All screenshots from 1974’s “Houston, We’ve Got A Problem.”

I just finished Rick Houston and Milt Heflin’s excellent Go, Flight!: The Unsung Heroes of Mission Control, 1965 – 1992, and HAD to view this movie following the book’s take down of it. Read more following the jump…

Go, Flight! spares nothing in its assessment of 1974’s Houston, We’ve Got A Problem. From page 310:

There is no way to fully describe how completely dreadful the 1974 made-for-television movie Houston, We’ve Got A Problem turned out to be. …The best that could be said about the movie was that is was apparently made with the full cooperation of NASA and Johnson Space Center. Scenes were filmed in the MCC hallways and control room and actual audio from the mission was used throughout. Tom Stafford has a line or two during the simulator scene, public affairs officer Robert T. White portrayed himself, and a handful of real-life controllers like Bob Heselmeyer were used as extras. That was where any semblance of realism began and ended. Stafford was lucky that only the top of his head was shown during his brief appearance…

So naturally I had to watch this catastrophe to make my own critical assessment of the movie, which is OBVIOUSLY a documentary factually recreating one of the most visible, terrifying NASA crises of all time. 

Tom Stafford’s cranium, ladies and gents. Note the excellent yellow/maize flight suit with the Gemini 9A patch. The Oklahomski translator must have had the day off when this scene was filmed.

I’ll be blunt, the movie was so fully awful I couldn’t watch it continuously; instead I fast-forwarded to view what I considered the best “highlights.” It’s somehow high praise when a movie makes the loathsome Marooned look like a blockbuster production.

Here is a rundown of my “favorite” scenes:

  • Sandra Dee in general: Faded “Gidget” child actress and Bobby Darin ex-spouse Sandra Dee stumbles around drunk through most of this film as a controller’s angry, jealous wife; the film pretty much opens with her completely losing her mind as her poor husband has to go to work in order to save the lives of Lovell, Haise, and Swigert. Because HOW DARE THEY EXPLODE THE SIDE OF THE SERVICE MODULE WITHOUT HER PERMISSION! At any rate, she is pretty entertaining, is probably cheating on her husband, and at one point overdoses. Somehow at the end she’s well enough to view the Apollo 13 splashdown, and with the crisis now averted, things are miraculously okay with her relationship with her husband. WTF did I just watch?
  • Robert Culp writhing on the ground in a Speedo having a “heart attack”: I really have no clue how this scene was inserted into the movie. All I know is Robert Culp as flight controller “Steve Bell” (Hot Mess Flight) is chilling by the pool with his poor wife, suddenly drops his iced tea (shattering the glass with a dramatic flourish) and has some kind of heart episode. Conveniently he’s wearing a tiny bathing suit, and the scene of him writhing in agony by the pool wearing a banana hammock is filmed in excruciating ultra-slow motion. Bell’s heart problems don’t end there. At the film’s end, he collapses in the hallway outside of the MOCR after valiantly prepping the crew for reentry, and therefore saving the day. Thankfully, this time he was fully dressed. It’s never fully explained if Bell survives, because the movie sort of derails to an end right there. 
  • Best Supporting Role awarded to Tom Stafford’s head: Actual NASA astronaut Gen. Tom Stafford makes a cameo appearance in the film in a simulator scene, but as mentioned above, only the top of his noggin is shown. Interestingly, Stafford is wearing the maize colored “Skylab era” flight suit of the mid-1970s (space nerd note), and at no time was his Oklahomski translated to English for the discerning viewer. For a dedicated enthusiast, this was the sole thrill of the movie. It’s just a shame Stafford couldn’t have simulated a better movie for him to star in…

The relentless drama is not limited to these incidents; there is also a custody battle and a dying relative situation, among other things. It seems that everyone in the MOCR scheduled the complete collapses of their personal lives during the exact week Apollo 13 ran into problems. I’ve been told Lovell actually quipped following the premiere of this movie that the crew members were somehow safer in space had this actually been going on in Houston. 

“Did I save them?” “Just please, cut out the theatrics and die already, sheesh.”

At the film’s end, I was hoping the real Lovell, Haise, and Swigert (hey, toss in Mattingly too) would walk in and say, “We’re back! We survived, heard you missed us! We solved all of our problems on our own, since you all were so obsessed with crazy s–t on the ground.” For completists only, watch at your own risk.  

If you really want to watch this mess,
click here. Did you watch this turkey? Feel free to form a support group in the comments.

Emily Carney is a writer, space enthusiast, and creator of the This Space Available space blog, published since 2010. In January 2019, Emily’s This Space Available blog was incorporated into the National Space Society’s blog. The content of Emily’s blog can be accessed via the This Space Available blog category.

Note: The views expressed in This Space Available are those of the author and should not be considered as representing the positions or views of the National Space Society.


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Emily Carney

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