Directed by the Emmy-nominated Ryan White (whose previous documentary work includes The Keepers, The Case Against 8, and Ask Dr. Ruth) and in collaboration with Steven Spielberg’s production company Amblin Partners, Good Night Oppy, as the title hints at, follows the extraordinary life span of a Mars rover fittingly named Opportunity. But the real focus of this out-of-this-world underdog story is on the many brilliant minds at NASA that brought this robotic treasure to life and successfully landed it on Mars. It’s refreshing to see how, roughly 20 years since the rover’s inception, the scientists’ energy and passion haven’t at all dissipated. It’s their relentless drive and curiosity that ultimately made them able to achieve the seemingly impossible. While not many people have worked on projects of this scale and scope, many do know what it is like to be passionate about something, which is one of the many reasons why this story is so accessible.
White smartly interviews people from all levels of hierarchy on the mission, which gives the audience a more nuanced look at how the experience impacted different people. No matter where you are on the NASA food chain, this potential Mars adventure was a massive deal. The Viking missions in the 1970s managed to land spacecraft on the planet and take invaluable pictures, though the questions far outweighed the answers. Steve Squyres, the principal scientist behind the eventual Opportunity project in 2003, was a geologist during the Viking mission era. “I started working with the images from the Vikings orbiters, and I would look down on Mars using these pictures, and I had no idea what I was looking at. But the beauty of it was: nobody did,” adding, “This was seeing stuff that nobody had ever seen before, and I knew that I was going to do space exploration.”
The film nicely sets up Opportunity’s origin story and its intense present-day nostalgia by providing the audience with some context on space politics. Certain markings in the pictures from the VIkings missions made it seem like there was a chance that this mysterious planet once had life (or still does), but it wouldn’t be possible to figure this out unless we had something that could move around and get up close and personal with the rocks. In the ‘80s, all of Squyres’ proposals to build a rover had been rejected by NASA, and things weren’t looking like they would pan out. He assembled, in an Avengers-like manner, a team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) that matched his boyish enthusiasm. This time, the proposal was approved, and the development of twin sister rovers Spirit and Opportunity commenced. If all goes according to plan, then these two robots would roam Mars for 90 sols (which are days that are 40 minutes longer than Earth days) and hopefully answer the burning question: was there life-sustaining water on Mars? Fortunately for these space scientists, things do not go according to plan. To everyone’s utter amazement, our titular hero survives the harsh conditions of Mars for 15 years.
The archival footage from start to finish nicely complements the interviews with the team today, as they remember, often with a tear in their eye, such a fast-paced, emotional, and above all, unpredictable moment in space history. The energy in their recollections matches the energy in the room at JPL in the early 2000s, where each day felt riskier than the one before it. Morale in the room was either incredibly high or low depending on Oppy’s health, which made camaraderie the secret weapon of the entire mission.
At the beginning of each work day (which changed daily to align with Oppy’s schedule), someone would choose a “wake up” song, which inevitably included “Born to Be Wild,” to get the blood pumping through the veins of the sleep-deprived crew. Passing a huge jar of peanuts around was also an essential part of the process and helped everyone keep their sanity during swathes of time when Oppy was unresponsive. The group would even keep score on a cocktail napkin of a running bet each year over how long these rovers could last. (That napkin, which was needed much longer than anyone anticipated, is now immortalized in a frame in Squyres’ home).
Another charming element of this story is that everyone knew how lucky they were to be part of this mission. “From a young age, I was into Star Trek. I wanted to be Geordi La Forge…I just knew I wanted to be the person that always fixed things,” mechanical engineer Kobie Boykins explained. Vandi Verma, one of the rover drivers of Spirit and Opportunity, had a particularly unique perspective. “During the mission I was pregnant with twins and so it was a different way for me to relate to the twin rovers. I thought about these two beings that are so connected and so similar and yet are going to have completely independent lives. The rovers have their own personalities, and it’s hard for me to pick which one of them is my favorite.”
When Oppy successfully maneuvered a crater or emerged from a dust storm unscathed, the scientists reacted as if they watched their collective child take their first steps. In fact, numerous times throughout the documentary, they compared their experience watching Oppy over the years roaming Mars independently to someone watching their child grow up. “It’s just a box of wires, right? But you end up with this cute-ish looking robot that has a face,” camera operations engineer Doug Ellison sweetly puts it. The unadulterated excitement and childlike wonder was present in everyone’s voice, constantly reminding the viewer of how magical this operation really was. Oppy’s origin story and her adorable, human-like qualities will surely attract a wide audience, but the vulnerability and passion of the engineers are what makes this documentary special.
Good Night Oppy is available to stream on Prime Video.