“Good Night, Oppy” shares the human heart of robotic missions to Mars

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In the opening scenes of the new film “Good Night, Oppy,” the Opportunity rover passes Perseverance Valley on Mars in June 2018, as the B-52’s “Roam” fills the room at mission control.

The perky tune was the rover wake-up song, played at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. In the same way that NASA has used a song to wake up astronauts every day they spend in space since the 1960s, the Opportunity rover team started their daily shifts with a song that set the mood for the journey of “Oppy”.

But an incoming storm on the horizon changed everything.

The documentary film “Good Night, Oppy” follows the Mars Opportunity rover, which turned what NASA expected to be a 90-day mission into 15 years of exploration on the red planet. Credit: Courtesy of PrimeVideo

Oppy had already weathered dust storms, along with solar flares, sand traps, cosmic rays, collisions, and harsh Martian winters for more than a decade as he explored the red planet. In 2018, however, his team was able to recognize the signs of “grey hair”: a weak memory, a desire to take a nap, arthritis in the robotic arm.

Mission team members still considered it their lucky, invincible rover. After all, Oppy was designed for a 90-day mission, but she exceeded all expectations and outlived her twin sister, Spirit, by about seven years.

This storm was different. It quickly grew in size, encircling the planet and blocking out the sun.
The last message from the solar-powered rover to mission control read as follows: “My battery is dead and it’s getting dark.”

This chapter is just the beginning of “Good Night, Oppy,” available to stream on Amazon Prime November 23. The film traces the journey of the twin rovers and the people who have dedicated their lives to them from conception to the last transmission.

The film sheds light on the hope of space exploration and captures the emotional bond between humans and the robotic ambassadors who explore on our behalf.

Director Ryan White intertwined decades of footage from NASA vaults with photorealistic effects and animations from Industrial Light & Magic, the famed visual effects company founded by George Lucas, and narration from actor Angela Bassett. The documentary places the viewer on Mars alongside the two rovers as they roam on opposite sides of the red planet.

“Even though the spacecraft was robotic, the mission was human,” said Doug Ellison, camera engineering team lead for Curiosity Rover at JPL, who also worked on Opportunity’s mission.

twin robots

When NASA engineers built and tested the twin rovers in the early 2000s, they quickly realized the robots couldn’t be more different. Spirit was the headstrong drama queen while Opportunity was the most ambitious, according to team members. Spirit was stubborn and fought through the same trials that Opportunity passed. Their personalities looked as human as their design.

The rovers were built to look for past evidence of water on Mars. Both launched in 2003 inside protective shells aboard Delta rockets and landed in 2004 on opposite sides of the red planet. The first 90 days of the dual mission came and went, and the JPL team realized that the two rovers were ready for more adventures.

Together, Spirit and Opportunity’s discoveries would rewrite the textbooks with new information about the red planet and its intriguing, watery past – and both found themselves in all sorts of trouble between discoveries, like getting stuck in the sand and almost plummet down the sides of steep craters.

The bonds between team members and the rovers quickly deepened despite the vast distance between Earth and Mars, making it all the more difficult when Spirit’s journey ended in 2011 and Opportunity went silent in 2018. There was hope that both rovers would “wake up” to the bitter end.

“The way the (Opportunity) mission ended was very abrupt,” Ellison told CNN. “We had a very happy and healthy rover a week, and then this dust storm came and took everything away… You can call it a death in the family. It was very sudden, it was very traumatic. And getting to see it again is It was really emotionally rewarding.”

Thousands of people have been working on every aspect of the rovers, bringing them to life and rolling them on Mars for longer than anyone expected.

“What we’re really saying goodbye to is the teamwork that’s focused on this robot and working with a whole bunch of great people,” Ellison said.

Bringing “Oppy” to life.

The creative process behind the film began in March 2020, on the eve of the pandemic.

A self-proclaimed “space geek,” White grew up in the 1980s and tracked space missions. The project has become his “lifesaver, getting to work on something so joyous in such a dark time,” he said.

Industrial Light & Magic took on the task of bringing Mars to life in a way that has never been seen on film before. Shot after shot, ILM team members worked with NASA to confirm that what they depicted was accurate for the rover experience.

The end result is as close as we get to viewers standing on the surface of Mars, with camera angles that appear to have been filmed on the red planet itself.

“ILM really taught us that you can do it within the bounds of reality: through the lenses and the lighting and through the angle of the robot’s cameras, which were its eyes,” White said.

A mission team member inspects NASA's Opportunity rover.  The team became emotionally attached to the robotic Mars explorer and his twin brother, Spirit.

A mission team member inspects NASA’s Opportunity rover. The team became emotionally attached to the robotic Mars explorer and his twin brother, Spirit. Credit: Courtesy of PrimeVideo

The missions of Spirit and Oppy have ended, but the exploration of Mars continues today through next-generation rovers such as Curiosity and Perseverance. The latter launched in July 2020 while White was working on the documentary.

The first Martian samples collected by Perseverance will reach Earth in the 2030s and may contain evidence of life, if it ever existed on the red planet.

“All of these missions, like Cadence, are the precursor to sending humans there to carry on that adventure in the future,” Ellison said. “I hope the next generation of engineers and explorers, people like my 4-year-old daughter, can see documentaries like this and say, ‘I want to do some of that myself. I want to be part of an adventure like that.’ “

Add to queue: More on Mars

look: “The Mars Generation” (2017)

Aspiring teenage astronauts explore curriculum at NASA Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama as they pursue the dream of one day traveling to Mars. Experts also evaluate the history and future of NASA and the practicality of colonizing another planet, revealing that the first human journey to Mars is closer than you might think.

look: “The Martian” (2015)

Based on the novel by Andy Weir, Ridley Scott’s upbeat sci-fi film follows a stranded astronaut who must find clever ways to survive on barren Mars with only a few supplies and no way to contact Earth.

look: “The Expanse” (2015-2022)

Set in a future where much of the solar system has been settled by humanity, the six-season television series (and nine-novel book series by James SA Corey) follows a hardened detective and the captain of a rogue ship who they investigate the case of a missing young woman. Traversing the planets, they discover the secrets of their unusual life circumstances.

Laws: “Roving Mars: Spirit, Opportunity and the Exploration of the Red Planet” (2005)

Steven Squyres, mission manager of the Mars Exploration Rover Project, shares the story behind the landing of the twin rovers in 2004. With the many setbacks at the start of the mission and the race against time to complete the construction of the two rovers Ahead of launch, Squyres offers readers a front row seat and his expert insights into early rover discoveries.

look: “Apollo 11: First Steps Edition” (2019)

Released 50 years after NASA’s Apollo 11 mission, this critically acclaimed documentary analyzes the final moments of preparation in 1969 leading up to the first human landing on the moon. With the current Artemis missions set to land the first woman and first black person on the moon in the next decade, NASA hopes further lunar discoveries will eventually lead to the first man setting foot on Mars, making the discoveries of the historic Apollo mission 11 more important than ever.


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