by Jeff Foust
Monday 7 November 2022
Good night Oppy
Directed by Ryan White
105 minutes, not rated
A spaceship dies on the surface of Mars. NASA’s InSight spacecraft is nearing the end of its extended mission as its performance begins to decline due to dust buildup on its solar arrays. The agency has been warning for months that the spacecraft’s performance will soon drop below the minimum needed to keep it operational. In a release last week, JPL said it would declare the mission over if the spacecraft missed two consecutive communications passes. “There will be no heroic action taken to reestablish contact with InSight,” JPL said, adding that the mission is likely to reach that end in the next few weeks.
|The film explores how robots like Spirit and Opportunity are treated as humans by those who built and used them.|
InSight’s impending demise brings back memories of two other spacecraft, the twin Mars exploration rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which far survived their 90-day mission. Spirit lasted until 2011 and Opportunity until 2018, when a massive dust storm blew out sunlight from the solar-powered rover. Both rovers were hailed and mourned as if they were colleagues of the engineers who built them and the scientists who used them to search for signs that the planet might once have been habitable. The life and death of these rovers are told in the new documentary Good night Oppywhich debuted in theaters last Friday and will be available on November 23 via the Amazon Prime streaming service.
At the same level, Good night Oppy is a basic documentary about the twin Mars rovers. Using archival footage and interviews, the film largely follows a chronological approach, beginning with principal investigator Steve Squyres’ longstanding efforts to send rovers to Mars, through the development, launch and landing of the rovers, to their extended operations. The story of these operations, including the technical problems and scientific breakthroughs, is also told through brief “mission log” entries, voiced by actress Angela Bassett, making the film the closest thing to a narrative possible.
On a deeper level, however, the film explores how robots like Spirit and Opportunity are treated as humans by those who built and used them. The rover’s anthropomorphization was widely publicized during the missions, but it was more than just an outreach gimmick. Those who helped create them describe in the film how the identical rovers had different “personalities” in their development: Spirit was remembered as often encountering problems during these tests, Opportunity was “Little Miss Perfect”. This even goes back to the design of the rovers, which mount the cameras at an average person’s height and with similar visual acuity as if it were a person standing on the surface and surveying the terrain.
This continued throughout their extended missions. When Opportunity struggled to move a shoulder joint in his robotic arm, it was described as “arthritic.” One person who joined the team later in the mission drew comparisons between the memory problems Opportunity’s rover had late in its mission to her grandmother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
|It is therefore not surprising that the rovers are mourned at the end of their missions. For those who have worked on the rovers for years, they are as deeply integrated into their lives as a friend or family member.|
The filmmakers complement the interviews and archival footage with computer-generated animations of the rovers on the Martian surface, providing stunning depictions of the rovers’ journeys. The film perhaps goes a little too far with these depictions: At times, the rovers will beep, click and whirr, sounding like R2-D2’s Martian cousins when responding to commands from Earth. (And no, unfortunately, it’s unlikely that either rover cruised across the Martian landscape while playing The B-52’s “Roam.”)
It is therefore not surprising that the rovers are mourned at the end of their mission, despite being robots that have far exceeded expectations. For those who have worked on the rovers for years, they are as deeply integrated into their lives as a friend or family member.
The film also illustrates the dedication and hard work of the team at JPL that operated the rovers: after all, they were the ones who solved the various problems the rovers encountered on their long missions and got them safe in the first place have brought to the surface . The film’s release coincides with a report from an independent review board commissioned by NASA to investigate issues delaying the launch of the Psyche asteroid mission and uncovered serious institutional problems at JPL, from a thin workforce to a shortage of communication between engineers and managers. Laurie Leshin, who took charge of JPL less than six months ago, recalls in a series of tweets that the development of the twin Mars exploration rovers followed the twin failures of the Mars Climate Orbiter and the Mars Polar Lander. She wrote that she encourages “everyone to see this great film, get inspired and be as determined and confident as I am that we will meet this moment, learn and move forward.”
InSight hasn’t enjoyed the same attention and fame as Spirit and Opportunity; The launch was delayed and one of its main instruments, a heat flux probe, failed to dig into the surface as planned. It wasn’t humanized to the same degree as the Rovers. However, when it finally succumbs to a power outage in the coming weeks, it will likely be mourned by those who helped build and operate it.
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