“Good Night, Oppy” Shares the Human Heart of Mars Robotic Missions

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In the opening scenes of the new movie “Good Night, Oppy,” the Opportunity rover rolls through Perseverance Valley on Mars in June 2018, as B-52s “Roam” fills the room at Mission Control.

The energetic tune was the rover’s wake-up song, played at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The same way NASA has used a song to wake up astronauts every day they’ve been in space since the 1960s, the Opportunity rover crew started their daily shifts with a song that set the tone to “Oppy’s” trip.

But a storm brewing 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 Prime Video

Oppy had weathered dust storms, as well as solar flares, sand traps, cosmic rays, near-misses and harsh Martian winters for more than a decade while exploring the Red Planet. In 2018, however, his team was able to recognize the signs of “gray hair” – failing memory, the desire to nap, arthritis in the robotic arm.

The mission team members still considered it their lucky rover, though – invincible. 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, circling the planet and blocking out the sun.
The last message from the solar-powered rover to mission control translated to this: “My battery is low and it’s getting dark.”

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

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

Director Ryan White has woven decades of footage from the vaults of NASA with photorealistic effects and animation from Industrial Light & Magic, the famed visual effects company founded by George Lucas, and narration from actress Angela Bassett . The documentary places the viewer on Mars with the two rovers as they roam back and forth across the Red Planet.

“Even though the spacecraft was robotic, the mission was human,” said Doug Ellison, engineering camera team leader for the 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. According to the team members, Spirit was the queen of headstrong drama while Opportunity was the top performer. Spirit was stubborn and struggled through the same tests Opportunity flew through in a flash. Their personalities seemed as human as their design.

The rovers were built to search for past evidence of water on Mars. Both were launched in 2003 inside shield shells aboard Delta rockets and landed in 2004 on opposite sides of the Red Planet. The first 90 days of the dual mission have passed and the JPL team realized that the two rovers were ready for more adventures.

Together, the discoveries of Spirit and Opportunity would rewrite the textbooks with new information about the Red Planet and its intriguing, watery past – and they both had all sorts of problems between discoveries, like getting stuck in the sand and almost slipping on the sides of steep craters.

The bonds between the team members and the rovers quickly deepened, despite the great distance between Earth and Mars, which made it even more difficult when Spirit’s journey ended in 2011 and Opportunity fell silent in 2018. There was hope for the two rovers to “wake up”. until the bitter end.

“The way the (Opportunity) mission ended was very sudden,” Ellison told CNN. “We had a very happy, healthy rover one week, and then this dust storm came along 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 him again was really emotionally rewarding.”

Thousands of people had worked on every aspect of the rovers, bringing them to life and keeping them rolling on Mars longer than expected.

“What we’re really saying goodbye to is the teamwork that’s focused on this robot and working with a whole bunch of amazing 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 followed space missions. The project became his “lifeline, getting to work on something so joyful during such a dark time,” he said.

Industrial Light & Magic took on the task of bringing Mars to life in a way that had never been seen in cinemas before. Shot by shot, the ILM team members worked with NASA to confirm that what they were describing matched the rover experience.

The end result is as close as viewers can get to the surface of Mars, with camera angles that feel like they were filmed on the Red Planet itself.

“ILM really taught us that you can do it within the confines of reality: through the lens, the lighting, and 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, Spirit.

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

Spirit and Oppy’s missions are over, but Mars exploration continues today thanks to next-generation rovers like Curiosity and Perseverance. The latter was launched in July 2020 while White was working on the documentary.

The first Mars samples collected by Perseverance will arrive on Earth in the 2030s and may contain evidence of life – if it ever existed on the Red Planet.

“All of these missions, as a cadence, are the precursor to sending humans out there to continue this adventure in the future,” Ellison said. “I hope the next generation of engineers and explorers, people like my 4-year-old granddaughter, can see documentaries like this and say, ‘I want to do this too. I want to be part of this. ‘an an adventure like that.'”

Add to Queue: More on Mars

Look: “The Mars Generation” (2017)

Aspiring astronauts explore NASA’s Space Camp program in Huntsville, Alabama as they pursue their dreams of one day traveling to Mars. Experts also delve into the history and future of NASA and the practicality of colonizing another planet, revealing that the first human trip to Mars is closer than you think.

Look: “The Martian” (2015)

Based on Andy Weir’s novel, 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 colonized by humanity, the six-season TV series (and a nine-novel book series by James S.A. Corey) follows a hardened detective and a rogue ship’s captain. investigating the case of a missing young woman. Running across the planets, they discover secrets about their unusual living conditions.

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

Steven Squyres, Mission Manager for the Mars Exploration Rover Project, shares the story of the two rovers landing in 2004. With the many setbacks at the start of the mission and the race against time to finish building the two rovers before the launch, Squyres gives 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 breaks down the final moments of preparation in 1969 leading up to the first human’s landing on the moon. While current Artemis missions are expected to land the first woman and first person of color on the moon within the next decade, NASA hopes new lunar discoveries will eventually lead to the first human to set foot on Mars. making the discoveries of the historic Apollo 11 mission more important than ever.

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