Often, the public only turns its gaze to space missions during the spectacular moments: launches and landings, mostly. But Mars rovers maintain a special place in our hearts, as they toil millions of miles from home, sending us updates and images over the course of years. We get used to receiving these alien postcards—until one day, a mission goes silent, and we have to say goodbye to the robot we grew to love.
The goodbye was especially tough when NASA’s Opportunity rover stopped responding in 2018 after 15 years of operation on the Red Planet. For a robot that was only supposed to last three months, Oppy was amazingly resilient. Most famously, it discovered ample evidence of ancient water. The story of this plucky rover and its companion, Spirit, is told in a new documentary called Good Night Oppy, streaming on Amazon Prime Video starting November 23. The film takes viewers back 30 years to the conceptualization, construction, and eventual launch of Spirit and Opportunity, which landed on Mars in 2004.
You’ll learn about the rovers’ struggles to withstand the punishing Martian environment—the main villains being dust in the air and an unfortunate sand trap. Dust devils, the large, whirling columns of dust that appear with little notice, had NASA worried, until they became an unexpected restorative force for the rovers. Hear more in the exclusive clip below:
Directed by Ryan White and narrated by Angela Bassett, the documentary features first-person accounts from several key members of the Spirit and Opportunity teams, including Steve Squyres, the principal investigator of both missions, and Jennifer Trosper, who worked on the rovers and is now the Mars 2020 Project Manager.
When it comes to lander missions, even the best laid plans are gambles. The documentary recounts the dramatic twists and turns in the Spirit and Opportunity missions, as the two rovers interrogated an unfamiliar landscape.
Good Night Oppy’s animations take viewers through the alien Martian terrain alongside the rovers in stunning detail. The film anthropomorphizes the robots and showcases the very human connections that members of the NASA team and the public forged with them.
“Whilst liberties have been taken, what those liberties have done in this documentary is to get to the core of the emotional story that has been missing all this time,” said Doug Ellison, the Engineering Camera Payload Upload Link of NASA JPL’s Mars exploration team, in a video call with Gizmodo. Ellison is interviewed in the film and is now in charge of sending imaging commands to the Curiosity rover. “For those of us who were there at the end, it’s felt like the cathartic, emotional closure that we’ve been waiting for.
Sadly, the Spirit and Opportunity missions are both now gone from this, er, Mars. But the Curiosity and Perseverance rovers carry the mantle. Cameras aboard the two active rover missions are actually the same sort that were aboard the earlier rovers, making the past missions feel even closer. Good Night Oppy is an enjoyable watch for space fans who want to relive these missions—or experience them for the first time.