1438: Houston

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


On Apollo 13's way to the Moon, during a routine stirring of one of the oxygen tanks, an explosion occurred that damaged the craft. Frantic efforts by the mission control center located in Houston resulted in the safe return of all astronauts.

A similar situation is depicted in this strip including the design of the spacecraft, the nature of the problem, and the famous misquote "Houston, we have a problem". The modern type of monitor (flat panel LCD) in front of which Cueball sits suggests that the author is describing a more modern scenario. This time, however, there is much less help from ground. Upon receiving the message from the spacecraft, Cueball seems fairly indifferent. Instead of attempting to resolve the issue, he mocks the crew for not knowing how to stir and hangs up in favor of taking a call.

The last panel presents a coarse view of the spacecraft in orbit, with just enough detail on Earth to identify the continents Africa, Europe, the eastern halves of the Americas, and the largest islands of the Caribbean (Cuba and Hispaniola). From the zig-zag lines that show the origin of the transmissions it now becomes apparent that Cueball is not located at NASA Mission Control in Houston, Texas, USA. Instead, his position is far away to the northwest, on the other side of the continent, very likely at Houston, British Columbia, Canada. As of 2022, Houston is a town of 3200 people that describes itself as "home to the outdoor enthusiast". There is a small airport about 9 km northwest of the community: Houston Aerodrome, which is operated by the District of Houston and has no scheduled service. An operator at this airport would be used to dealing with, at most, "small to medium sized aircraft during daylight hours in VFR conditions". Hence, Cueball considers the call from space as a prank, and reacts accordingly, failing to help, being rude, and in the end even completely ignoring the call. This is contrary to how one would expect mission control to behave in the event of an explosion.[citation needed] However, since there are several towns of the name of "Houston", and since it was never explicitly stated which one of those was addressed by the spacecraft, something like this was just bound to happen eventually.

In the title text we learn that the call is from Cueball's mother, who is probably politely asking if he's got time for a chat. He tells her that he's doing "nothing important"—further driving home that he never assumed the distress call to be real.

Apollo 13[edit]

NASA mission Apollo 13 was intended to be the third manned landing on the moon. Immediately following the explosion, astronaut Jack Swigert calmly reported—and shortly later repeated by James A. Lovell—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".

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 jury-rig CO2 removal equipment intended for the command module to work with the lunar module (to which the astronauts had evacuated) using the equipment on board.
  • How to power the equipment back up within strict limitations.


[A spacecraft floats in outer space, the earth far in the background. Bits of it have broken off.]
Orbiter transmission: Houston, we have a problem
[Cueball with a headset sits at a computer desk with two monitors.]
Cueball: Cool.
[We see a close-up of Cueball.]
Orbiter transmission: ...What? Houston, we stirred our O₂ tank and it exploded!
Cueball: Sounds like you suck at stirring.
[We see the orbiter in space, far from the planet.]
Orbiter transmission: ...Houston? Are you-
Cueball: Listen, I've got another call. Good luck landing your airplane or whatever.

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A commentary on the nature of outsourced helpdesks, perhaps? Although, IME, the problems are more due to 'sticking to a script' (which would have given an entirely different exchange) rather than an unknowledgable and casually uninterested 'service'-person. 05:15, 24 October 2014 (UTC)

I think this is the idea behind the comic too. Kind of like a "What if it had happened today?" It sure sounds like the kind of hotline support we get today. Deantwo (talk) 10:29, 24 October 2014 (UTC)
I agree. This is definitely comparison between the original mission control center and current outsourced helpdesk centers. Although it would be interesting to know what specific incident caused Randal to comment on it. -- Hkmaly (talk) 12:28, 24 October 2014 (UTC)
I'm going to throw in the idea that this might be a reference to the "Facebook generation", hard to know what the reference is, but a few weeks ago in Australia, or national curriculum organization published a new curriculum program for year 9/10 students, teaching them how to be functional in the work place, respect for the workplace, other employees, bosses, work time, etc... 14:32, 27 October 2014 (UTC)

What is going on is this strip? Usually it's a reference to something or a commentary, but I don't get it at all. Cheeselover724 (talk) 05:32, 24 October 2014 (UTC)

I think I figured out enough of it to remove the "incomplete" tag. This is definitely one of the weird ones. Shachar (talk) 06:02, 24 October 2014 (UTC)

Reference to Continuum? (Canadian sci-fi show) 06:41, 24 October 2014 (UTC)

Ebola? Really? Where is that..what? 09:34, 24 October 2014 (UTC)

I agree, there is no evidence to back up the ebola reference. Djbrasier (talk) 09:36, 24 October 2014 (UTC)

Also, I took it to refer to people being distracted on the phone in general (hence the title text) or generally not taking their jobs serious. Maybe the idea that for NASA, space travel has become so routine that mission control is no longer as engaged in the missions. Djbrasier (talk) 09:38, 24 October 2014 (UTC)

Perhaps the guy answering the phone is called "Houston"? A misplaced Skype call from a rather shell shocked astronaut? (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

But then it wouldn't make sense, that he says he's at work.-- 13:36, 24 October 2014 (UTC)

There are a LOT of anachronisms, or things that don't match the way things were back in the 1960's, not just the flat screens. (And I do still remember the sixties, despite "if you can remember the sixties, you wern't really there" - a reference to the drug scene.) We didn't say "cool" or "you suck at doing that" back then, and it's very unlikely that communications with the mission and a simple telephone call would be selectable from the same headset, and the michrophones on headsets were larger and probably had dangling wires back then. --RenniePet (talk) 13:22, 24 October 2014 (UTC)

It could be a commentary on privatizing space travel by NASA (among others to Boeing). Would explain, why Cueball knows it's a "airplane or whatever".-- 13:36, 24 October 2014 (UTC)

I understand it's a reference, but is this supposed to actually be the Apollo 13? I understood it was just another mission happening today. I find the anachronism explanation nonsensical. 13:57, 24 October 2014 (UTC)

"At first glance, this comic appears to be an "alternate reality" view at what could happen today, given that most people in the XXI century seem to suffer ADD." I don't think that we can assume this at all. Also, that's not what ADD is. Lomky (talk) 14:16, 24 October 2014 (UTC)

Yeah. I think it's far more clear that Randall's commenting on unhelpful tech support than anyon'es short attention span. I've edited the explanation above. 15:34, 24 October 2014 (UTC)

Did Randall have a bad experience with a call center operator? Condor70 (talk) 14:38, 24 October 2014 (UTC)

Can someone explain why this is supposed to be funny? The explanation page doesn't quite get there. (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

xkcd is a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language; humor is not guaranteed. I see no indication that Randall is trying for humor here. NealCruco (talk) 03:22, 25 October 2014 (UTC)
It must be the math then... 00:40, 26 October 2014 (UTC)

Am i the only one interpreting Cueball as a script kiddie with too much spare time who somehow managed to hijack the communication line between Apollo 13 and Houston? The alt text is consistent with the basement dweller stereotype. Wouldn't explain the other call though. 17:22, 24 October 2014 (UTC)

No, that was my impression as well. KieferSkunk (talk) 01:10, 26 October 2014 (UTC)

Nasa just uploaded several audio recordings of their missions on soundcloud (https://soundcloud.com/nasa). Maybe Cueball is just playing with those while he is at work. 17:31, 24 October 2014 (UTC)

"It's always 'problem, problem, problem' with you guys. Don't you ever call just to say 'hi'?" -- PheagleAdler (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

"We're having problems with our vocalization units. It seems we cannot manage to utter a single greeting during a tech support call. How can we fix this?" greptalk22:19, 05 February 2015 (UTC)

I don't get the context here. Is this supposed to be a biting satire on how the new generation sucks at social tact with their cell phones? How is a guy at NASA mission control being an asshat supposed to be funny or thought-provoking? Even the helpdesk angle doesn't really make sense, as inept as they can be I've never had one outright antagonize me like this guy does. ‎ (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

I found the comic to be more of a reference to that of a "friend" who does not care what your problems are and doesn't wish to help you solve them- like if you had lost homework or forgotten to do a project and called your friend at the last minute, he would mock you for your incompetence and blow you off. I found the comic to be a little pedanticism, as if what if mission control was filled with the "friends." I had no thought as to tech support... Maybe because all my tech support has been helpful. (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

The problem in call centers is that the businesses that run them cannot afford to train all incoming staff in the entirity of the technical knowledge required to actually be able to diagnose problems, so they design a "script" to be followed so that the staff can determine the problem and explain the solution. However, for those that do this job day in and day out and constantly have people calling with the "Same problems, over and over", they get really good at predicting when someone's situation is leading to a certain forgone conclusion in the script, and may develop a disdain for the callers due to the problem being "so painfully obvious how to fix, why does this person need to call me to fix that? Why don't they know how to do it themselves?" Which is caused by the fallacy of treating the entire job as being one experience with a single userbase rather than individual experiences with individual users. For those that are less versed in the technical knowledge that are just trying to do their jobs, their reaction when receiving this attitude tends towards "Why are you being so difficult? I called you for help!"

The largest problem created by this mindset is that people start seeing everyone else as idiots because they seem like they don't know what they're doing to the individual, but that's only caused by the fact that they are overexposed to their overly simplistic jobs and thus believe everyone else ought to know how to do what they are doing too - the fallacy here is coming from the fact that all the other individuals have their own specialized jobs - individuals don't get the opportunity to experience anything outside their own job experience very often because their jobs consume so much of their personal lives. Because of these overly simplified jobs individuals throughout the populace all have a sort of learned helplessness - they are all very good at one or two things, but rubbish at most everything else. And since the governments need good consumers to drive the money wheels of the economy, they pacify the intellectual needs of the people with entertainment. Those that still disobey the rules and are not creating enough money and jobs for the economy are jailed. Those that are creating enough money and jobs for the economy then hire lawyers and lobbiests to change the laws to protect their interests.

Of course there is also the issue that since those who are applying for the position aren't always required to have some background training in the field they are supporting, the applicant may have no interest in it whatsoever other than as a paycheck - these folks tend to be the ones that stick closest to the script, because without the script they themselves are lost - these type of personnel can and have been replaced by automated prompts by some companies. By allowing the customer to step themselves through the script, you no longer need an employee on the line to do that with the customer.

The consequence of leaving someone like this to answer incoming requests is that they generally feel their life is more important than the client calling in because they have no idea what they are actually doing other than following a script, and generally don't care, "as long as I get my 40 hours in" , or however long their work week is set to. They see the position as a prison they are submitting to so they can get the money to do what they want/need to in their time off - A job rather than a career. This mindset can be seen all over the employment base of countries that have changed most working environments into assembly line like jobs where each worker knows only one or two steps of the overall process, but almost no one knows the entire process - because if the workers know the entire process, they could easily quit their low paying jobs and start their own business making the same product but cheaper because they would not have all of the administrative overhead.

So overall I'd say the comic is a social commentary combined with a play on the famous events of Appolo 13. (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

Wrong number

Maybe the call has just somehow been routed to the wrong number? If Cueball were staffing some other type of helpline or call centre, his detachment and lack of understanding would probably be a natural everyday response to people who ring up with problems that aren't in his field. The line about 'your airplane or whatever' suggests he's not NASA at all.

Or maybe he's staffing one of those call forwarding services, and the problem is that the astronauts forgot to say 'Could I speak to NASA, please'. 08:35, 26 October 2014 (UTC)

Houston is more than just mission control. If Apollo 13 is calling "Houston", they get Cueball in some Houston-based call centre. I think this, with your conclusion, explains the strip well - except the anachronism, and what's a little anachronism among friends. (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

The Time Traveler's Radio Wow. I interpreted this very differently from others. Cueball is working at a modern company that allows him to access all communication from all times. His initial "Cool" was him getting the system to intercept a radio message from the past that he could then interact with in real-time. He trolled Apollo 13 from (thier) future. 18:51, 27 October 2014 (UTC)

The dialogue looks like a gamer talking to a fellow gamer. I think that either cueball is showing his experience with gaming, presumably because of a "wrong number" or a game which cleverly connects you to NASA. (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

I view this as an amateur using a HAM radio, such as the one in Gravity, who is either trying to troll or not believing that it was actually the crew of Apollo 13. I did not get any alternate reality or call centre vibe from this at all. 20:38, 26 December 2014 (UTC)

I may be wrong, but isn't Houston on the gulf coast? the speech bubble in the 4th panel seems to come more from the north-western part of the US, especially with the 4 smaller strokes next to the place where the speech bubble originates, it seems to indicate coming from the "edge" of the visible globe. Maybe from the space needle? Is there anything that would make sense in north-western USA or South-Western Canada as a place where the operator could be?--Lupo (talk) 06:19, 17 October 2018 (UTC)

Also: what islands are there that large in the middle of the atlantic ocean? or is that supposed to be the carribean? --Lupo (talk) 10:58, 28 February 2020 (UTC)
That's the Caribbean, showing its two largest islands (Cuba and Hispaniola). 11:13, 18 October 2022 (UTC)

I very much think Lupo (2018) is on the right track. My guess is that the operator is located in Houston, Canada which would closely match the operator's location as shown in the last panel. Plus, this community actually has a small airport (just one runway), so it would be quite natural for the operator to assume to be called from an airplane rather than from a spaceship. Wouldn't that fit better than the random call center explanation? 11:02, 18 October 2022 (UTC)

I now rewrote the explanation accordingly (after all, that's what a wiki is for). Along with that, I removed the "call center" explanation which I have always found a little contrived. Anyway, things can always be restored from the history, if there is need. 22:15, 18 October 2022 (UTC)

I think there are two take-aways from this comic. The first is the "Call Centre" experience which others have suggested. The second, embedded in the title text, is the inverse of the comic strip's appearance in that while Apollo 13 have a huge problem they require help on, Randall may be feeling guilty about having "dumbed down" or lied about the seriousness of a (possibly-employment related?) situation to his Mother when she had been worried enough to call him in the first place. The Call Centre analogy is an easy one to relate to. In the days when you could actually physically speak to an operator, they were typically so clueless about the technology or product they were meant to be trained on it was not funny. And, when the operator had had a bad day, the kind of retort that it "Sounds like you suck at stirring" often did get dished out to frustrated customers. In fact, that retort from the operator is why the theory about an operator in a "duplicate Houston" doesn't really stand up. In the general scheme of things, the receiver of a wrong number is typically polite in informing so; the sarcasm of the response in the operator in the comic indicates some kind of personal beef that just so happens to get taken out on our astronaut, a very common situation given the low wages and sub-standard working conditions that call centre operators are often subjected to. 09:22, 12 August 2023 (UTC)