Documentary film “Good Night Oppy”, which is currently available on Amazon Prime, is gives us a close and intimate look into one remarkable space mission which came to last a lot longer than expected. When NASA sent two rovers to Mars in 2003, the expectation on them was not that high for understandable reasons, but, what do you know, these two rovers moved and lived much more than their human controllers ever imagined, and the documentary is often poignant as showing us how much human efforts and emotions were projected into these two very special rovers during a long period of time.
They were respectively named Spirit and Opportunity, and the early part of the documentary focuses on the early stages of their mission during the early 2000s. Once his proposal on the geological exploration of Mars was accepted, Steve Squyres quickly worked on the project along with a bunch of scientists and engineers, and some of his team members, who are both smart and colorful in each own way, gladly tell us a lot about their demanding but rewarding work experiences. Although anything could go wrong at any point during the upcoming mission, they carefully and thoroughly prepared step by step, and it is interesting to observe how meticulously they worked on some of numerous technical obstacles in their project.
Anyway, the rovers were eventually completed and then fully prepared before the deadline, but Squyers and his team members remained nervous as usual. While the two rockets respectively containing Spirit and Opportunity were successfully launched into the space, they still had to be watchful of any unexpected troubles, and there indeed came a very big trouble when Spirit and Opportunity were in the middle of their long journey toward Mars.
Fortunately, Spirit and Opportunity respectively landed on the opposite sides of Mars without much technical glitch, but now Squyers and his scientists and engineers had to prepare for the last step for beginning the mission on Mars. Both Spirit and Opportunity needed to be connected with the NASA control room on the Earth, and Squyers and his team certainly braced themselves during the next few minutes when the fate of their mission would be determined.
To their delight, both Spirit and Opportunity turned out to be fully functional in addition to being ready to move and explore, and they became more excited day by day as Spirit and Opportunity sent lots of scientific data as they hoped. Thanks to these two rovers, they could get a much closer look into those alien landscapes of Mars, and that certainly awed and excited them a lot. Furthermore, Spirit and Opportunity provided more detailed geological data, and it seemed possible that they might come across the concrete evidence on the past existence of water on Mar.
Spirit and Opportunity were actually expected to operate just for around 90 days due to the harsh environment of Mars, but they surprised their human controllers as turning out to be more enduring than expected. For example, their solar panels were expected to be useless sooner or later as being covered with dust day by day, but the solar panels could often be cleaned by occasional dust storms, and that made both Spirit and Opportunity operate longer than their human controllers predicted.
When these rovers passed Day 90, Squyers and his scientists and engineers were quite delighted, and they became all the more motivated as Spirit and Opportunity miraculously kept working on Mars during next several years. While the scientists looked for more areas to be explored and studied, the engineers often handled small and big technical glitches to be solved in one way of another, and they all found themselves more emotionally attached to their rovers day by day.
Sadly, there eventually came a point where Spirit, which had to endure a harsher condition compared to its fellow rover, stopped to function in 2009, but Opportunity continued to function during next several years. Although it surely came to suffer more of mechanical deterioration and software problem during its later years, its human controllers kept it moving as usual, and it kept amazing them as remaining fairly well and competent.
The most touching part of the documentary comes from a number of Squyers’ team members who confide to us a lot on how much they came to care about Opportunity. The older team members cannot help but become sentimental because they put a considerable part of their lifetime onto Opportunity and its fellow rover. The younger team members regard these two rovers with respect and reverence because, well, these two rovers inspired many of them to pursue space exploration when they were kids.
In the end, there came an inevitable moment when Opportunity could not go on anymore. Due to the massive planetary dust storm on Mars in 2018, Opportunity ceased to function on June 12th, 2018, and that day was certainly quite bittersweet for its human controllers. Although it was just a machine, it was an endearing entity to them for many years, and everyone felt quite sad as arriving at the eventual end of their miraculous mission.
On the whole, “Good Night Oppy” is pretty engaging as a sincere chronicle of the two memorable rovers at its center, and director/co-writer/co-producer Ryan White, who previously made “Ask Dr. Ruth” (2019), did a splendid job of mixing archival and interview clips along with the vivid visual recreation of Opportunity, Spirit, and their extraordinary time on Mars. To be frank with you, I do not really know when we can actually go to Mars, but I really hope that both Opportunity and Spirit will be retrieved and then preserved someday for representing the better sides of our humanity, and I think you may hope for the same thing after watching this lovely documentary.