Imagine a mission that was only supposed to last about 90 days, but went on for nearly 15 years. This wasn’t just any mission, it was the story of twin rovers, one ill-fated and the other, destined to become famous. “Good Night Oppy” is about that recently ended mission, the story of Opportunity and Spirit, the first two Mars rovers. Spirit and Opportunity represent a significant moment in space exploration that played out in La Cañada-Flintridge and Pasadena at JPL and Caltech. The film “Good Night Oppy” uses the CGI supplied by Industrial Light & Magic, to capture a beautifully detailed scientifically-based reality of the first two Mars rovers.
At Caltech and JPL where a science fair or open house may include a mini rover (which my dog once attacked), Rover isn’t the generic name of a wandering dog, but the moniker given to a group of robotic explorers that were built in JPL’s special germ-free room. The rovers Spirit and Opportunity were the height of a small adult at five-foot-two. They had six wheels and they were launched in 2003, landing on the red planet in January of 2004. Think of a golf cart and then imagine them about seven times heavier. Their mission was to collect geological and atmospheric samples and transmit the data back to the scientists and engineers at JPL.
Spirit landed first. Opportunity landed on the other side of the red planet twenty days later. Spirit and Opportunity had been preceded by Sojourner, the first wheeled robot to land and wander the Red Planet. Sojourner had only weighed 23 lbs. That’s the size of a small dog or the weight of year-old baby. Spirit and Rover weighed in at 374 lbs.
Today, the Mars rover missions might seem like a no-brainer, but it wasn’t an automatic go for the team who worked on the proposal. There were also problems to be solved: How to land on Mars. How to navigate and gather data and survive the wind storms. This documentary shows the trials and failures in that respect. After landing Sojourner, Spirit and Opportunity made their way to Mars and once on Mars, the team behind the rovers began living on Mars time. A day on Mars is a sol, the NASA term for a solar day. On Mars, a sol is slightly longer than Earth at 24 hours, 39 minutes and 35 seconds long. That meant weird working hours, particularly in the initial stages because Opportunity and Spirit were only meant to last 90 sols.
To tell Oppy’s story, the team chose a diverse cast of characters such as geologist Steve Squyres, Ohio farm-girl, Jennifer Trosper, who was the Project systems engineer and Mission Manager and is the Project Manager for Perseverance; Abigail Fraeman who was in high school when Oppy launched and became one of NASA’s lead scientists; Bekah Sosland-Siegfriedt, current Flight Director who started working at JPL in 2013 and Moogega Cooper, who entered a rover-naming contest at seventeen, is now a planetary protection engineer. Squyres’ book, “Roving Mars,” is the basis for much of the film and his life has been defined by the rovers.
While the people give this film an emotional connection to Earth and particularly to Pasadena, the usage of archival photos (including an Oppy selfie), the complete cooperation of NASA and JPL has resulted in CGI images that make you believe we are on Mars, seeing Oppy’s struggles. Director Ryan White had worked with producers Jessica Hargrave and Brandon Carroll on the Emmy-nominated series about an unsolved murder, “The Keepers,” White co-wrote with editor Helen Kearns. White and Hargrave and editors Kearns and Rejh Cabrera with a team of assistant editors when through the extensive JPL archives for footage, but that alone wouldn’t be enough. Amblin Entertainment, the company behind “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” “Back to the Future” and “Jurassic Park,” along with Industrial Light & Magic took the footage from the rovers, and built sharper, clearer images from angles to let the audience believe they are on the Red Planet observing Spirit and Oppy’s struggles but also striving to create images that would satisfy the scientists behind Oppy.
The last signal from Opportunity was “heard” on June 10, 2018. The 44th G7 summit in Canada has just ended the day before. Then-president Donald Trump had pushed to reinstate Russia for a G8. By June 12, he was in Singapore for the 2018 North Korea-United States summit. Trump’s meeting with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was the first time a sitting US president had met with a North Korean leader.
The Oppy team waited until February 13, 2019 to declare this Mars mission over, effectively declaring Oppy dead. Oppy had traveled only 28.05 miles which might not seem like much for Pasadena’s or anyone living in Los Angeles County, but those Oppy miles were accumulated well after the 90 expected sols. Oppy and the ill-fated Spirit had only been designed to travel 1,100 yards. The news cycle didn’t have time for a prominent obituary. Then-president Trump was ruling and ruining the news cycle and at the end of the month was in Hanoi, Vietnam for his second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (27-28). The same month SpaceIL had launched the first privately initiated moon mission.
Just a little over two years after Oppy’s last signal came to Earth on June 2018, one of Oppy’s successors, Perseverance, was launched on 30 July 2020. About two years after Oppy’s mission ended (12 February 2019), Perseverance landed on Mars (18 February 2021). Perseverance was the fifth rover; the fourth was Curiosity which had landed on Mars in August 2012. Curiosity weighted 1,982 lbs. Perseverance weighed 2,260 lbs.
As Pasadenans and the world look toward the new knowledge Perseverance brings, this film can help them look back to where it started, with optimism and Opportunity. And it comes out just when JPL is bidding farewell to another Mars explorer: InSight. InSight touched down in 2018 and has detected 1,300 marsquakes, including seismic events resulting from meteoroid impacts. NASA will declare the mission over when InSight misses two consecutive communication sessions.
“Good Night Oppy” will be released in theaters on November 4, 2022 in the US, and globally be available to stream on Prime Video from November 23.