“Good Night Oppy,” the story of the Mars Exploration Rover, comes to the M.V. Film Center on Friday, Nov. 25. This 2022 documentary follows the amazing story of what started as a 90-day exploration and ended up lasting for almost 15 years. Directed by Ryan White, it’s narrated by Angela Bassett. The following is a preview of the film, which was not available for viewing before press time.
The project started out with two exploration rovers, Spirit and Opportunity (nicknamed Oppy), launched in 2003 and designed to investigate soil samples, determining the PH level in the groundwater found there, and with it the possibility of primitive life forms. Spirit spends 90 days (sols in Mars terms) on Mars, then lasts until 2010 when it stopped communicating, but, remarkably, Oppy kept on going for a total of 14 years. The NASA team likened its sophisticated machinery to a live entity: 5-feet-2 in height, the same as a human being. In fact, Oppy could be said to be an avatar for the human desire for exploration.
In contrast to the 1999 Mars Climate Orbiter, which ended in a disaster costing a total of $125 million, the scientists could be said to have something to learn from. They designed machines that could think for themselves and solve the inevitable problems that arose. These included the challenge of dealing with solar flares and, once on Mars, to figure out how to descend the precipitous walls of craters. In many ways, the film is the natural extension of “The Martian,” the fictional movie starring Matt Damon, or the robot movie “WALL-E.”
The principal scientist for the project was Steve Squyers, who lobbied at length for NASA to explore Mars once again. The vehicle designed to be sent to Mars consisted of six wheels, a flat solar panel, a long horizontal arm and a vertical neck with camera lenses.
Some of the challenges Oppy faces and overcomes include the precipitous craters, dust storms, and quicksand topography. Part of the appeal of the film is its examination of the way the scientists humanize these highly complex mechanisms. The many years it takes to develop and fine-tune the equipment conveys their affection for it. The soundtrack, with its disco music and ballads, further enhances the narrative.
Most of all is the compelling story of how these scientists guide Oppy remotely and spend a significant portion of their lives managing the robot. And when the end comes for this interplanetary machine, it does indeed feel like it’s died of old age.