“Good morning, Opportunity! Time to wake up,” NASA pings the Opportunity rover as it begins yet another day on its Mars mission. And so, the wheeled robot dutifully rolls off towards a large crater, the team behind “Oppy’s” movements hoping to discover evidence that life could have existed on Mars. As it trundles along, the song “Roam” by The B-52’s blasts in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), where the team is just beginning its day.
Historically, NASA likes to awaken its astronauts up with music, and they’ve decided to give Oppy and her sister rover, Spirit, the same treatment. After all, they’re only hoping to get 90 sols (Mars days) out of the machines before they break down, so why not have a bit of fun with it?
But 90 days soon come and go, and the rovers are still trekking along the Red Planet. The rovers are surviving everything Mars throws at them. Whether it’s Spirit temporarily going offline after touching a rock (while we hear “S.O.S.,” by Abba) or Opportunity braving a huge dust storm (“Here Comes the Sun,” by The Beatles), the two rovers far exceeded their warranties.
While Spirit eventually broke down permanently after more than six years of Martian service, Oppy persisted—for years and years. Oppy rolled ever onward, even as many of the original rover team members at JPL had left, and as new scientists and engineers had taken their places. Not surprisingly given both rovers’ unexpected longevity, many of the robots’ earthbound handlers developed an emotional attachment them.
“To say it’s like a child being born would trivialize parenthood,” mission manager Steve Squyres said of the creation and launch of Spirit and Opportunity. “But it feels sorta like that.”
That’s why, when Opportunity finally does stop responding—nearly 15 years after it first touched the Martian surface in 2004—it’s a somber day for NASA. Because though Spirit and Opportunity far surpassed all expectations and made amazing discoveries, it’ll nevertheless be hard to say goodbye, even with one last wake-up song (“I’ll Be Seeing You,” by Billie Holiday).
Good Night Oppy may only have a runtime of an hour and 45 minutes. But its subject matter spans years—from the mere concept idea of the rovers being pitched to NASA all the way past Opportunity’s “death,” ending with the launch of the Perseverance rover.
Though the documentary comes from a scientific perspective and offers clear explanations of potentially complex topics, the majority of the film actually revolves around a plethora of emotional comparisons to the two rovers being NASA’s “children.”
It’s not hard to see why. The documentary mentions that the rovers stand 5-foot-2, and their eye-like cameras were created to have the same vision capacity that humans have. Each rover came equipped with its own autonomy to make decisions if needed without NASA’s prompting—which, at one point, saved Opportunity from smashing into a rock. And in testing, NASA began to notice “personality” emerge from the two robots.
“Spirit was troublesome; Opportunity was ‘little-miss perfect,’” one engineer stated.
We know, of course, that these two rovers are simply machines—complex machines, but still, only machines in all their beeping and booping glory. But director Ryan White’s documentary forges an emotional connection with the audience, and we begin to feel a bit attached to the robot ourselves—similar to how we might with the fictional robots from movies such as Wall-E or Chappie.
For instance, here’s how one interviewee in the film expressed sending the rovers up into space: “I have raised this child—that’s sort of what it feels like—and now it’s that child’s time to shine.”
We’re additionally let in on how a rover driver at NASA connected with twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity because they were sent to Mars while she was pregnant with twins. And when Opportunity begins having memory loss issues, a flight director tells us of how it helped her deal with her grandmother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Another staff member describes the creation of the rovers in nearly biblical terms: “breathing life into” them.
The ultimate mission of the rovers was to search for signs that drinkable water had once existed on Mars. And the documentary offers a bit of commentary on that purpose, too. Ultimately, NASA determined via Spirit and Opportunity’s findings that, indeed, there likely was water on Mars—at least, at some point. Is, or was, there life on Mars? If so, likely only of the microbial variety, the film suggests.
Good Night Oppy isn’t your standard science documentary. Yes, there’s a whole lot of science that’s going on, and there’s a decent chunk of scientific information viewers will hear about regarding the Spirit and Opportunity rovers and their Martian findings. But the documentary really seems to want to tell another story—one of NASA staff members’ emotional connection with the two rovers.
Spending years with these roving robots helped the team to bond with their machines. No, Spirit and Opportunity were no R2-D2 or C-3PO, but they still felt like the team’s “children,” at least in part. That feeling was more fully explained by the documentary’s Director Ryan White:
“We were also finding ourselves falling in love with Opportunity, even though we never knew her, through the people and their bond that they had with her,” White said in an interview with IndieWire. “It is a box of wires, and it is an inanimate object, but it feels alive to the people who made it.”
That’s part of what makes saying goodbye to Opportunity so difficult—not just because it’s the end of a monumental scientific journey but also because of that emotional attachment.
Good Night Oppy’s PG rating comes from its three uses of “d–n” and one misuse of God’s name. Additionally, some might find the frequent comparisons between the rovers with actual human children to be a bit forced, as well as being problematic from a very literal theological perspective.
That said, Good Night Oppy offers a surprisingly poignant opportunity to talk about parenthood, children and relationship. That’s because director David White and his filmmaking crew invite viewers into the fascinating, tender story of two robots who survived longer than anyone thought possible, stealing the hearts of scientists interacting with them each day along the way.
Though he was born in Kansas, Kennedy Unthank studied journalism at the University of Missouri. He knew he wanted to write for a living when he won a contest for “best fantasy story” while in the 4th grade. What he didn’t know at the time, however, was that he was the only person to submit a story. Regardless, the seed was planted. Kennedy collects and plays board games in his free time, and he loves to talk about biblical apologetics and hermeneutics. He doesn’t think the ending of Lost was “that bad.”