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Calling all space nerds: New documentary Good Night Oppy will give you all the feels

"Opportunity was our brave, intrepid explorer so we could see this unchartered world that we'd never seen before."
Enlarge / “Opportunity was our brave, intrepid explorer so we could see this unchartered world that we’d never seen before.”

Prime Video

For over 14 years, space nerds and the general public alike were riveted by the parallel journeys of Spirit and Opportunity, twin intrepid Mars rovers who launched and landed on the red planet three weeks apart and surpassed their original 90-day missions by many years. We watched from Earth as they explored the Martian surface and dutifully collected samples before finally giving up the ghost in 2010 and 2018, respectively. Now we can relive that journey all over again—while others can discover it for the first time—in Good Night Oppy, a dazzling, feel-good new documentary from Prime Video directed by Ryan White.

It’s easy to forget that the triumphant story of Spirit and Opportunity began against a backdrop of two previous failed missions to Mars: the Mars Climate Orbiter, a robotic space probe that lost communication as it went into orbit insertion, and the Mars Polar Lander, which never re-established communication after what was likely a crash landing. While the orbiting 2001 Mars Odyssey mission was a success, there was still tremendous pressure on the teams at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to finally land an autonomous solar-powered robotic rover on Mars. Another failure could have jeopardized the future of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover program.

Fortunately, both launches went off without a hitch. There was a moment of terror when Spirit bounced dramatically upon impact, resulting in a nail-biting delay until the signal was re-established. (The engineers in Good Night Oppy joke that Spirit was always a bit of a drama queen.) But Spirit was fine, and Opportunity landed safely a few weeks later. Each rover spent the next several years exploring their respective regions of Mars, overcoming steep hills, getting stuck in the loose Martian soil, and bracing against dust storms to deliver oodles of valuable scientific insights back to mission control on Earth.

Along the way, the rovers also captured the public’s imagination and hearts—people like White, who dreamed of becoming an astronaut as a child and became a documentary filmmaker instead. So White and lots of other people (Ars staff included) experienced some feelings when NASA announced it had lost contact with Opportunity on February 13, 2019, after she failed to respond to over 1,000 recovery commands. (Spirit had succumbed nine years earlier, going silent on March 22, 2010; NASA officially concluded the mission on May 24, 2011.) To mark the end of a mission that exceeded expectations by 14 years and 47 days, mission control transmitted “I’ll Be Seeing You,” performed by Billie Holiday.

It’s those kinds of moments that White conveys so eloquently in Good Night Oppy. “These robots took off when I was in college, so I only followed this mission from afar,” he told Ars. Making the documentary helped him appreciate the scientific mission and legacy of Spirit and Opportunity even more. Ars sat down with White to learn more.

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