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Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
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Revision as of 15:42, 8 August 2012

Welcome to the explain xkcd wiki! We already have Expression error: Unrecognised punctuation character ",". comic explanations!

(But there are still Expression error: Unrecognised punctuation character ",". to go. Come and add yours!)

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'Oh, hey Mom. No, nothing important, just at work.'
Title text: 'Oh, hey Mom. No, nothing important, just at work.'


Ambox notice.png This explanation may be incomplete or incorrect: Incomplete. Why is NASA unengaged in the issue? What is the relevance of prioritizing a call from mom over an exploding manned space ship? Why is the anachronistic spaceship?
If you can address this issue, please edit the page! Thanks.

NASA mission Apollo 13 was intended to be the third manned landing on the moon. On its way there, however, during a routine stirring of the hydrogen and oxygen tanks, an explosion occurred that damaged the craft. Frantic efforts by Christopher C. Kraft Jr. Mission Control Center (located in Houston) resulted in the safe return of all three astronauts to Earth. Immediately following the explosion, astronaut James A. Lovell calmly reported to Mission Control: "Houston, we've had a problem" - a notable understatement which was famously misquoted in the 1995 film adaptation of the mission as "Houston, we have a problem".

A similar situation is depicted in the this strip (including the design of the spacecraft, the nature of the problem and the famous misquote), except with much less help from Mission Control. Although it's not clear if Cueball is only one person at mission control, or if he is only one of many, but upon receiving the message from the spacecraft, he seems fairly indifferent. Instead of attempting to resolve the issue, he mocks the crew for not knowing how to stir. He then blows the crew off in favor of a call from his mother.

In reality, Mission Control worked diligently and tirelessly to solve numerous problems such as if and how to adjust the spacecraft's trajectory, how to have the astronauts jerry-rig CO2 removal equipment intended for the command module to work with the lunar module (to which the astronauts had evacuated) using just the equipment on board. and how to power equipment back up within strict limitations.

At first glance, this comic appears to be an "alternate reality" view at what could happen today, given technical customer service lines are notoriously un-helpful and/or staffed by people not well versed in the products they supposedly support. It is meant to contrast history with Cueball's (lack of) action. It leaves implicit the consequences of this inaction, for greater shock.

The modern type of monitor (flat panel LCD) in front of which Cueball sits suggests that the author is describing what would happen today. The comic can be read as a commentary about one's favorite objection to how the world has gotten worse:

  • Call centers which blithely ignore critical calls
  • NASA's quality issues in recent decades (and/or the funding cuts or direction shift contributing to same)
  • the perception view that millennials are less committed to work
  • the lack of national commitment to grand projects
  • the idea that we are "falling behind" in technical skills, causing Cueball to fail to recognize the seriousness of the problem
  • the objections by some to lack of governmental support for those in need
  • by others to the lack of individual commitment for the same

Similarly, it can be read as a parody of the idea that you are responsible for fixing your own problems, an old idea that is being used in many contentious contexts today. One way to interpret it is as a thought experiment. Could Apollo 13 have landed on Earth without Misson Control's help? Although in real life Mission Control and their team provided massive help (figuring out the CO2 problem, determining how to separate the Command Module from the Lunar Module, etc.), in theory (but probably not in practice) the astronauts may have solved these on their own if forced.

In short, it seems a comic designed to provoke legitimate conversation and enjoyable whining.


[The Apollo 13 space capsule is next to the Earth. The capsule has just exploded.]
Lovell: Houston, we have a problem
[Cueball sitting In front of two monitors wearing a headset.]
Cueball: Cool.
Lovell: ...What? Houston, we stirred our O2 tank and it exploded!
Cueball: Sounds like you suck at stirring.
[Capsule shown from a greater distance, with Earth beside it.]
Lovell: ...Houston? Are you-
Cueball: Listen, I've got another call.
Cueball: Good luck landing your airplane or whatever.

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