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Damian McAuley

February Edition of Agronomist & Arable Farmer – Damian McAuley

3 minutes February 8, 2021

There are numerous examples of erroneous quoting and cultural misremembering. Julius Caesar never said, “Veni, vidi, vici”. Sherlock Holmes never said, “Elementary my dear Watson”. And despite it being perhaps the most quoted movie line ever, Humphry Bogart never said, “Play it again, Sam”. But as an aeronautics and space flight nut, the one that always rankles me is, “Houston, we have a problem”.


We all know the story. If you don’t remember the original, Tom Hanks and Ron Howard did a fabulous job with the sequel.

It was 1970 and Apollo 13 was set to be the third mission to land on the moon. As the spacecraft hurtled away from Earth at nearly 25,000mph, a tiny defect inside one of the oxygen tanks caused it to explode. Fortunately, the blast didn’t damage the integrity of the pressurized hull, but it obliterated the contents of one oxygen tank. Shrapnel from the explosion damaged the neighbouring tank, causing it to also vent its contents into the vacuum of space.


As well as being essential for the respiration of its human cargo, oxygen was also required for the Apollo spacecraft’s electrical systems. Fuel cells converted hydrogen and oxygen into electricity to power the spacecraft’s numerous and complex flight systems and to keep the astronauts alive throughout the planned 8-day mission. The waste-water the cells produced also provided drinking water for the crew. Two of the three cells were quickly dead, and the third was rapidly dying.

The detail of what the flight and ground crews did over the next four days is astonishing and abbreviating it here would be disrespectful to those that participated as well as to you. However, the ingenuity, expertise, teamwork and sheer grit that was displayed during the Apollo 13 mission shows us all that with the right people and the right mentality, triumph can be achieved even in the most pessimistic circumstances. And no I’m not being political here!

Not that I ever had any doubt, but clearly those at the helm of the Association of Independent Crop Consultants (AICC) have that right stuff.


In any other year, early January is a time when all brave independent agronomists are embarking on missions to the AICC Annual Conference. But with a worsening pandemic and government restrictions preventing this joyously Covid-insecure event from taking place, plans were made to move the conference to a virtual platform.

To be honest, I didn’t have much enthusiasm to sit isolated in my own, cramped command module for several days – but at least I had plenty of oxygen. And then, in home offices, bedrooms and garden sheds all over the UK, at the allotted time, the custom-made AICC Conference website holding page disappeared, the face of our very own Mission Controller, Sean Sparling, appeared and all of a sudden we were there.

The technology worked a charm, and the speakers and content of their presentations was as good as always. Subjects were diverse, interaction was great and as we are all discovering with our move to online meetings, the transport and travel to the event was a synch. Far from being a poor version of its usual self, the conference was one of the best, and as well as providing me with all the technical detail and food for thought I need for the season ahead, it taught me a lot about our resilience and adaptability even when the going is getting a bit tough. A bit like that (spoiler alert!) ultimately successful NASA mission of 50 years ago.


As for the misquote, the transmission, often misattributed to Mission Commander, Jim Lovell, was made from the Apollo 13 command module at 9.08pm on April 18th 1970 when, after hearing and feeling a loud explosion, Jack Swigert said, “Houston, we’ve had a problem here”. Maybe it’s not as catchy, but then neither is “Play it, Sam”.


First published in February 2021 edition of Agronomist and Arable Farmer magazine. To read the original article or to find out more, please visit

Avatar for  Damian McAuley

Damian McAuley

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