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edge staff writer


Life on Mars – ‘Good Night Oppy’

November 28, 2022
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We as humans have a tendency to project our own emotions and experiences onto those around us. And that’s not just our fellow people – we’ll anthropomorphize just about anything. Pets, wild animals, even inanimate objects; we have an inherent desire to create those connections.

And yet … sometimes, it’s the right thing to do.

“Good Night Oppy,” the new documentary from Amazon Studios, is a thoughtful exploration of that tendency by way of the Mars rover, of all things. This engaging and surprisingly heartfelt film from director Ryan White takes the viewer along as the rovers Spirit and Opportunity are conceived, constructed and catapulted into the cosmos.

Interviews with some of the major players in the rover program – the engineers who designed them, the scientists who directed them – are interspersed with archival footage from varying points along the two-decade timeline and some recreations intended to give more of a first-person understanding of the rovers’ experience.

It’s the sort of story that would have been compelling enough had the rovers simply fulfilled their three-month mission. Instead, these robots would spend the next decade-plus moving across the surface of the red planet, going above and beyond their original mission again and again. And as the years passed and the rovers kept going, the scientists and engineers on the ground began to view them as not just tools or equipment or machinery.

They were family.

Opportunity and Spirit were part of the Mars Exploration Rover program, part of the larger Mars Exploration Program. A big part of the MEP’s overarching mission was to determine if liquid water – key to sustaining life – had ever existed on the planet’s surface. The two rovers were designed to help answer that question via geological exploration; the rovers would convey data to the scientists at NASA for the duration of their 90 sols of operation (a sol is a Martian day – a few hours longer than a day here on Earth).

Building the rovers was an incredibly delicate process. Landing them on Mars undamaged required even more delicacy. And yet, NASA and their partners at the Jet Propulsion Lab were successful on both counts. The mission played out as well as they could have hoped, with both rovers landing safely in January of 2004. The three-month duration of the mission resulted in reams of incredible valuable data.

But when the last day came and went and neither rover showed signs of slowing, the powers that be decided that they would keep going until they couldn’t anymore.

What was meant to be a three-month mission would last years. Spirit managed over seven years before getting stuck and exhausting her reserves trying to get out; her mission’s official end was marked at the end of May 2011. Meanwhile, Opportunity lasted even longer – her mission officially ended on February 19, 2019 (though last contact was in June of the previous year).

“Good Night Oppy” is a fascinating film, a look at a massive scientific achievement through the lens of the people who helped make it happen. Scores of brilliant people dedicated years of their lives to this project and the potential discoveries it helped to unlock.

And yet … these brilliant minds were no less susceptible to that tendency toward anthropomorphizing. You might have noticed when I referred to each of the rovers as “her” at various points; that’s because to a person, that’s what these people did too. These scientists and engineers, livers of a life of the mind, they viewed Spirit and Opportunity as conscious and sentient. These people felt real feelings toward these rovers – to them, the rovers were far more than mere machines. They were colleagues and friends and, yes, family.

From the tradition of wake-up songs (many of which can be heard on what proves to be a far bigger banger of a soundtrack than you might expect from a NASA documentary) to the magnificence that was Oppy’s selfie to celebrate 5000 sols, the connection between man and machine was palpable throughout. The affection shown toward these rovers was real and constant, whether we’re talking about the guy who led the engineering team that first built them (and talked about making design choices intended to recall living things) or the NASA scientist whose life’s path was defined by having won a contest as a high school student that put her in the room when one of the rovers was launched.

“Good Night Oppy” is the product of some extremely effective filmmaking. One can only imagine how dry a documentary about Mars rovers might have been, but White’s angle – exploring the human element – is absolutely the correct one. The balance between interviews, archival footage and recreations is spot on, with just the right amount of each element to best tell the story.

Honestly? It’s beautiful. It is smart and funny and incredibly, almost shockingly touching.

Did I expect to cry at the end of a Mars rover documentary? No. Did I in fact shed tears? You better believe it. Watching these people say goodbye to their friend – a goodbye that clearly still resonates for some of them – was incredibly impactful emotionally.

“Good Night Oppy” is some top-tier documentary filmmaking, taking a subject that would seem to be all about logic and intellect and turning it into a story of heart and perseverance.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 28 November 2022 15:37

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