Editor’s Note: Keeping you in the know, Culture Queue is an ongoing series of recommendations for timely books to read, films to watch and podcasts and music to listen to.
In the opening scenes of the new film “Good Night Oppy,” the Opportunity rover rolls along through Perseverance Valley on Mars in June 2018, as “Roam” by The B-52s fills the room at mission control.
The peppy tune was the rover’s wake-up song, played at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. In the same way NASA has used a song to wake up astronauts each day they spend in space since the 1960s, the Opportunity rover team began their daily shifts with a song that set the mood for “Oppy’s” journey.
But a storm brewing on the horizon changed everything.
Oppy had weathered dust storms before, along with solar flares, sand traps, cosmic rays, near collisions and harsh Martian winters for more than a decade while exploring the red planet. In 2018, however, her team was able to recognize the signs of “gray hairs” — a failing memory, the desire to nap, arthritis in the robotic arm.
Mission team members still thought of her as their lucky rover, though — invincible. After all, Oppy was designed for a 90-day mission, but she had exceeded all expectations and outlived her twin sister, Spirit, by some seven years.
This storm was different. It rapidly grew in size, encircling the planet and blocking out the sun.
The solar-powered rover’s last message to mission control translated to this: “My battery is low and it’s getting dark.”
This chapter is just the beginning of the documentary, available to stream on Amazon Prime on November 23. The film traces the journey of the twin rovers and the people who dedicated their lives to them from concept to that last transmission.
The film shines a light on the hope of space exploration and captures the emotional attachment between humans and the robotic ambassadors that explore on our behalf.
Director Ryan White has woven together decades of footage from the NASA vaults with photorealistic effects and animation from Industrial Light & Magic, the famed visual effects company founded by George Lucas, and narration from actor Angela Bassett. The documentary places the viewer on Mars along with the two rovers as they roam on opposite sides of the red planet.
“Even though the spacecraft was robotic, the mission was human,” said Doug Ellison, engineering camera team lead for the Curiosity Rover at JPL, who also worked on Opportunity’s mission.
As NASA engineers built and tested the twin rovers in the early 2000s, they quickly realized the robots couldn’t be more different. Spirit was the headstrong drama queen while Opportunity was the overachiever, according to team members. Spirit was stubborn and struggled through the same tests that Opportunity breezed through. Their personalities seemed as human as their design.
The rovers were built to search for past evidence of water on Mars. Both launched in 2003 inside protective shells aboard Delta rockets and landed in 2004 on opposite sides of the red planet. The dual mission’s first 90 days came and went, and the JPL team realized the two rovers were ready for more adventure.