Some Words About ‘Some Words’

The astronauts’ preferred term for “instructions”

Normally, the ARED exercise machine is one of the astronauts’ favorites. Right now: No joy. (NASA)
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Spend some time listening to conversations between astronauts on the space station and Mission Control in Houston, and you’re likely to hear an expression common in spaceflight culture: some words, meaning instructions, or advice, or the like—as in, “We have some words for you about that problem with the WHC,” or, “Thanks for those good words on the Cygnus operations.”

I’ve always been amused by this usage, as if any random words would do:

Ground: Station, we have some words for you on that Cubesat deploy, if you’re ready …
Astronaut: Go ahead, Houston …
Ground: Fish … lumberjack … popsicle 

I heard the expression the other day, when station commander Tim Kopra called down to report a problem with the rope-pull on the crew’s ARED exercise machine. Here’s his exchange with astronaut Jessica Meir, who was the Capcom in Mission Control.

You get a good sense of the space station work culture from their continued conversation, which went on for even longer than this (edited) clip:

It’s total teamwork, with the astronaut crew and the much larger group of engineers on the ground cooperating to solve a problem, neither one the authority, everyone’s opinion valid. Maybe that’s where the democratic neutrality of some words comes from. It’s not a case of, “Do this,” or, “The boss wants you to do that.” It’s never an order, just some words. 

I asked space historian Andrew Chaikin if he knew where this particular usage originated, similar to the way “no joy”—meaning something was unsuccessful—began with British fighter pilots during World War II (and according to this, came from fox hunting). He didn’t know, but found it as far back as Gemini 7 in 1965, when Jim Lovell, at 18 hours and 31 minutes into the mission, says, “We’d like to hear some words on what you think is causing the Delta-p light trouble, if you have some.”

If anyone has some words about the history of this phrase, I’d like to hear them.

Meanwhile, as of the end of the week, the crew was still “no go for any rope activities” until they figure out the ARED problem. I’m sure they will.

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