New Documentary Is Endearing Tribute To NASA’s Rover Program

9:28 minutes

an orange background, with faded images with a science-fiction theme such as zombies and astronauts, and the words "science goes to the movies"In 2003, the world became captivated by two rovers launched by NASA on a mission to Mars, known as Spirit and Opportunity. The rovers were sent to the Red Planet to discover what was on the surface. The rovers were only expected to last 90 days. Instead, Opportunity led a 15-year life of discovery, including the bombshell that Mars may once have been suitable to sustain microbial life.

The story of these twin rovers is the subject of a new documentary out this month: “Good Night Oppy,” evoking the nickname of the Opportunity rover. The film features footage taken over nearly two decades, from the building of the rovers to recent interviews with scientists involved in the mission.

Ira speaks with “Good Night Oppy” director Ryan White, as well as featured scientist Doug Ellison, engineering camera payload uplink lead at NASA, based in Alhambra, California.

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Segment Guests

Ryan White

Ryan White is the director of Good Night Oppy. He’s based in Los Angeles, California.

Doug Ellison

Doug Ellison is the Engineering Camera Payload Uplink Lead at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Alhambra, California.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: Back in 2003, NASA launched two Rovers on a mission to Mars. Those Rovers, Opportunity and Spirit. They were sent to the Red Planet to search for evidence of water, a sign that life may have once existed there. What started out as a 90-day tour turned into 15 years of discovery, including the bombshell that Mars may once have been suitable to sustain microbial life. You may have followed their exploits on the show over the years.

The story of these twin Rovers is the subject of a new documentary out this month. It’s called Good Night Oppy, the nickname of the Opportunity Rover.

Joining me to talk about this are my guests, Ryan White, director of Good Night Oppy. He’s based in Los Angeles. Doug Ellison, camera engineer for Rovers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He’s in Alhambra, California.

Welcome, both of you, to Science Friday.

DOUG ELLISON: Absolute pleasure.

RYAN WHITE: Thank you for having us.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. Ryan, let’s start with you. What was it about the Spirit and Opportunity story that made you so excited to do this documentary?

RYAN WHITE: It was that the story had just ended. So as a documentary filmmaker, I’m typically out in the field with my camera, documenting some sort of remarkable event in someone’s life. And I was a total space geek growing up. I always wanted to make a space film once I became a filmmaker. But I had never found a story that I felt suited that type of character-based filmmaking, where you’re watching something unfold.

And then, when the tweet went viral in 2018, of the translation of Opportunity’s last communication with Earth, translated as, “My battery is low and it’s getting dark,” it had such an emotional gut punch to it that I thought, well, maybe this is the right type of story to tell because this Rover, who’s lived this incredible life, is nearing the end. What I didn’t know is that NASA had almost 1,000 hours of footage of her and Spirit’s lifetimes.

Once I discovered that treasure trove of footage existed, I felt like this is the type of story that I could tell, and make the audience feel like they’re along for that journey, from when Opportunity and Spirit are first birthed, all the way through their respective deaths, and tell a really human story through the eyes, so to speak, of these robots.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Doug, you’re one of those humans involved, featured prominently in the documentary. Tell us what it was like all those years. Did you get as attached to the Rovers as we see in the film, and as it seems everybody else did?

DOUG ELLISON: Absolutely. It does seem very strange for us to feel an emotional attachment to a robot. But I think that is only kind of a natural expression of the robot being the focal point through which we are expressing this creativity, this teamwork, this dedication to doing something that’s really exciting and important. The focal point becomes what you care about.

And so, as Ryan alluded to, the wounds were still open, I think, when we were being interviewed for this documentary. The mission had not been over really that long. And it ended quickly. We went from having a super happy, healthy Rover, to Mars saying, you know, you’re done, good night.

IRA FLATOW: It got old, didn’t it?

DOUG ELLISON: I mean, Opportunity was an aging vehicle, but she was in remarkable health a week before we lost contact. She had loads of power. We were somewhere scientifically compelling. And then this global dust storm comes along and just pulls the rug out from under you. And it was over so quickly. And I don’t think any of us had time to process it in the moment. Or even over the subsequent six months of recovery efforts, we were still trying to figure out, what do the numbers say are the chances of getting her back? When might those solar panels get cleaned? What is the best strategy to try and get the Rover back?

And then all that ends and you’ve got this hole. And it’s a Rover-shaped hole, right? It’s that project that is missing. And I don’t think many of us realized that we needed someone like Ryan to step up and tell this story.

For ourselves, it feels like emotional closure. It feels like finally the adventure is done. But then what it can do is take the entirety of that adventure, turn it around, and then send it forwards to be a story for other people to learn how all these great engineering endeavors, all these scientific projects– even when it’s just a robot– these are human stories. They are human projects. And people should feel like they can also be a part of those projects in the future.

IRA FLATOW: In case you’ve just joined us, I’m Ira Flatow. And this is Science Friday, from WNYC Studios.

You certainly do feel like you were there. And you certainly relive those trials and tribulations that we were not even aware of much of the time. I mean, so much of the film is filled with “I didn’t know that” moments. And you start out, Doug, right at the beginning by saying that the Rovers were supposed to be twins. But I get the sense that Opportunity was the favorite child among the scientists. Because you have even one of the engineers saying, even before they left this planet, Spirit was troublesome, Opportunity was Little Miss Perfect.

DOUG ELLISON: I mean, Opportunity, Little Miss Perfect though she may have been, was certainly not everyone’s favorite Rover. I think you could bifurcate the whole team. And it’s only right to say, thousands of people were involved in designing and building and getting these robots ready for launch. And you could split a line straight down the middle of those who’s picking their favorite child. Some love Spirit. Some love Opportunity. But they definitely developed personalities.

And it seems so strange. If you bought two laptops, you wouldn’t expect them to have personalities, right? But when they were being assembled, when they were being tested, Spirit would come across these tests first. She was like the first down the production line, for want of a better phrase.

And so there’d be a problem, something might not quite go right, or maybe the test procedure was wrong. And so they’d fix it. Then Opportunity comes through a couple of weeks later, aces the test, ready to go. And so their story bifurcates before they even leave the planet.

And then, when they land, Spirit lands first, and almost immediately descends into a very, very near mission-ending series of incidents with her flash memory. And Opportunity is just barreling down, about to land a few days later. And Spirit had to drag herself across the floor of Gusev crater to go find that really compelling scientific evidence of an aqueous history of Mars.

Meanwhile, Opportunity lands, opens its cameras, and 20 feet in front of it is layered outcrop that absolutely speaks to the aqueous history of Mars. It was right there on a plate. And so Spirit was– I think the phrase someone uses is– kind of the blue collar Rover, and Opportunity started off having things pretty easy, but things got tougher as she got older.

IRA FLATOW: Doug, what do you think Opportunity’s legacy is?

DOUG ELLISON: There are so many components to it. Scientifically, it laid the groundwork that Curiosity has carried on so beautifully. From an engineering perspective, we learned how to conduct the first overland expeditions on another planet with these two vehicles. And I think culturally, these Rovers taught all of those of us involved in missions like this that it’s important to bring the public along for the ride. It is not right to have a closed book when these missions are ongoing.

And so every image going online invited everyone in the world to come along on this adventure. And I think every mission that is heading out beyond low-Earth orbit has learned the lessons from Spirit and Opportunity that everyone should be in a place where they can feel that they are a part of these amazing adventures.

IRA FLATOW: And Ryan, what do you hope viewers get out of this film?

RYAN WHITE: It’s not a kid’s film. We didn’t make this film for kids. But we made this film in a way that adults can take their kids. And I love seeing young audiences at this screening. As young as six-year-olds have come to the screening. And I want young people out there to be inspired by watching these back stories of these humans.

It was always surprising to me that everyone that we were interviewing seemed to be an outsider in some way, whether that was being from a small town in Ohio or small-town Texas, or a different country. Or many of those people in our film say, I actually wasn’t good at math and science as a kid, but I loved space and I made myself good at it to get a career in this.

So I mean, I hope people just go on a journey and have fun with it. But I really do hope young people take inspiration from watching these human stories that led to this robots adventure.

IRA FLATOW: I hope so. I got a few chills watching it, remembering all the things that went on over the years. And I got to tell you, I got misty a few times. Thank you, both, for taking time to be with us today.

RYAN WHITE: Thank you so much.

DOUG ELLISON: It’s an absolute pleasure.

IRA FLATOW: Ryan White, director of Good Night Oppy; Doug Ellison, camera engineer for Rovers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Good Night Oppy is now in theaters, and it will be released on Amazon Prime November 23.

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