Image credit: Amazon Studios

In college, my professor introduced our first-year advanced chemistry class to the idea that water might once have been on Mars. And, if water, might there also have been primitive cellular life on Mars, too? 

This simple progression, set out in that lecture hall in 1997, brought me to a realization that I have never forgotten: that this is what it means to have not just a question, but a quest. When it comes to life on Mars, the question and quest have been around for some time, even if primarily in Victorian-era science fiction. But in recent decades the goal has been closer than ever. Indeed, my Stanford professor was apparently among those few chemists queued up to analyze the content of Mars rocks for traces of water, the fertility-endowing substance that is crucial for creating life as we know it. 

How, though, to get to Mars to gather rocks to find the chemical rivulets and records that could confirm this hypothesis? This challenge was pursued primarily by both NASA and Russian space missions during the Cold War. Then, in the 1990s and early 2000s with renewed vigor, multiple NASA missions attempted to land on and map parts of the planet. 

This is where Good Night Oppy begins. The new documentary, released for streaming by Amazon Studios in time to qualify for an Academy Award nomination, invites viewers into the story of the twenty-first century quest to get to Mars, to find rocks, to analyze the possibilities of what might once have swirled—and lived—on the now-hyper acidic, arid planet. But the film is much more than a tale of engineering prowess and scientific exploration: it raises questions that will stay with you long after the closing credits roll.

A mission to Mars becomes a labor of love 

Angela Bassett’s voice resonates as the occasional omniscient narrator and as the journal-voice of important events in the mission of the two Mars Exploration Rovers, named Spirit and Opportunity, which launched in 2003, each tasked with roaming across different sides of the red planet. In the film, the rovers are given CGI alter-egos to depict most of their time and movement on Mars (since there wasn’t the technology to support a third-eye drone hopping around on Mars at the time—something it would have been useful for the film to acknowledge explicitly and outright).

While Spirit and Opportunity have their CGI reconstructions, the human characters always play themselves, and to great effect. This human drama uses two methods: archival footage and contemporary interviews. The archival footage conveys the huge range of intensities and inanities that are inevitable when you are talking about the span of a sixteen-year space mission that had its genesis a decade before anything even went into orbit. Then, contemporary interviews elegantly describe, summon, and reflect on the mission with humor, intelligence, and care. 

The arc of the story is narrated by many participants but keeps returning to two central human personalities: Dr. Steve Squyres, whose career-long vision and dedication brought the project to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Dr. Jennifer Trosper, mission director for the Spirit rover.

Personality is not confined to human beings, however. One of the big questions the film prompts: how human is a robot? 

The Mars Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, so-called “identical twins,” surely began as technical tools designed for functionality. The initial goal was for them to land safely on Mars without immolating or crashing. The idea was to have maximal wingspan for solar panels to power the batteries through Mars’s long, frigid, dark winters; if they could each last ninety “sols,” a Martian day that is about forty minutes longer than a twenty-four-hour Earth day, the mission would be considered a breakthrough. The hope was to include high-tech cameras and ways of assessing geological formations in order to gauge the likelihood that forms of water may once have flowed on Mars. Function dictated form in this sense.

In the film, it’s clear that the rovers not only served functional purposes that far exceeded expectations (ninety sols became thousands—fifteen years’ worth, in the case of Opportunity). But beyond function: the rovers came to resemble humanoid entities—standing roughly human height and with a neck and head, and extendable arms with elbow and shoulder joints, looking perhaps like proto-Wall-E’s, you might say. 

The “blue-collar kid” and the “perfect child” 

And yet it’s not just physical resemblance to humans that shapes the rovers. 

As the Mission unfurls, engineers also imbue Spirit and Opportunity with personality. Spirit is the “blue collar” rover, working steadily if unglamorously on the more hostile side of Mars, encountering miles and miles of unremarkable volcanic rock. Opportunity is the “perfect child,” both in mission preparation and once on Mars. She (it is intriguing, and unexplained, why these “offspring” are gendered female) is set down in the tropics, moving with what the scientists describe as inquisitive energy, encountering myriad objects in her terrain, stopping to analyze them, and relaying copious data to Mission Control. 

It is from Opportunity that we—the scientific team and the viewers—learn that hematite, a common iron oxide compound, is on Mars, which indicates that basic life may also have been present! The scientists rejoice. Geology 101: Hematite, Dr. Squyres tells us, usually forms in the presence of water, and, since we know that water is often understood to be a requisite chemical condition for biotic life on planets like ours. 

This surge, this enthusiasm, this passion, is a far cry from the purportedly objective, unemotional, and disembodied intellectualized comportment that non-scientists may associate with scientific undertakings. Science is a deeply human endeavor, and one of the gifts of Good Night Oppy is to show viewers the richly constructive, emotional connections forged—both among teams, and between scientists and the rovers themselves.

Personal, emotional connections explicitly shape the scientists who shape the science. Dr. Trosper, for example, tells us that her immersion in aerospace engineering is directly due to her father, who “worked on the very first rockets” with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He introduced her to notions of air and space travel and the question of what hovers in the vast cosmos. As Dr. Trosper stands on the launch pad where her father once did the same, the entire family is cognizant of the significance of this moment. Parts of science are shaped by the attachments we inherit, as well as the ones we form.

So it is not irrelevant for me to tell you that I am on a plane as I write this, and that as the daughter and granddaughter of military pilots, flight is part of my generational history. A plane is not a Mars rover, of course. A plane is a metal fuselage careening through the sky, propelled by jet fuel and engines and airfoils and friction. But tonight, when I am flying miles above the earth, it is nighttime around this unlikely motor-powered tin can in the sky. The lights have been dimmed and some windows are covered. Some of us are typing, or sleeping. Through others you can see the engines—or the stars, if lucky, a glimpse of Jupiter. Here, too, is a woman carrying an infant, the baby covered with a blanket, the motion of bobbing and shushing familiar to any early childhood caregiver. 

I have been that parent. As I ponder the film on a nighttime flight and witness a parent-child bond moving through the lower atmosphere, I am again reminded of how associations between our mechanically-driven, technology-enhanced lives and our flesh-and-blood attachments are inevitable, often inextricable. And throughout these years during which I have parented a now-teen—a duration roughly equivalent to that of the fifteen-year Mars rover mission—I, too, have charted the shape of my days around the length and needs of my offspring at various phases of her life. It is what many parents do, and it is what shifts as children leave our orbit. 

Image credit: Amazon Studios

And so the camera finds Dr. Steven Squyres in the present day, sitting on a chair, reflecting on how he would characterize his relationship to the rovers. 

He pauses; he ponders. He is not a man flagrant or flippant with words. He says, as a preface, as a parent, that the birth of a child is a distinctive, life-changing, incomparable thing; that to be a parent, for the duration of another human’s life, is not something to be trivialized. 

Squyres pauses and then says: he cannot help but feel a parental relationship to rovers Spirit and Opportunity. 

“I don’t have to tell you guys,” Squyres says to the mission team in archival footage, “we get emotionally attached to these vehicles. You use a word like ‘love’ advisedly, but … we love these rovers.”

His humility, this comparable duality—that parenting human children is simultaneously not a thing to be trivialized and that this is what his relationship to Spirit and Opportunity is like—this prompts us, the viewers, to sit with his honest appraisal. To take seriously this statement of his experience of shepherding Spirit and Opportunity from conception to creation to exploration, relating to them throughout the duration, and then letting go at the rovers’ cessation. To take seriously the fact that this is a deeply human relationship, perhaps one of the most profound. 

And like any parenting relationship, it is reciprocal, if also uneven. 

Squyres visibly tears up. 

A story told by humans, about humans – and with humility 

At this precise moment, I realize that this is not like any space exploration documentary I have seen before. Good Night Oppy eschews the triumphal male narrator declaring that “Mankind” is learning new truths about the universe in the relentless march of progress, set against a limitless horizon of conquest. There is no exhortatory disembodied male narrator extolling the merits of space exploration for the moral development of the nation and its global political prominence. 

Yes, it is a story told in part by many men (including men of color, white men, many men of various nationalities). But it is also a story told and inhabited and embodied by many women, not just white. It is a story about envisioning the next scientific question, the steps to get there, the engineering prowess needed to solve a problem, and the collaboration that is absolutely required. This is rather antithetical to the diva/brand/colonial-nationalist mentality that characterizes so many cults of scientific or space-exploration personality today.

Instead, Good Night Oppy reminds viewers that scientific advancements are usually the result of infinite collective hours constellating around discrete tasks in pursuit of specific, if massive, goals. In this way, the film is a story about a decades-long quest; about elite technical and scientific and engineering prowess; about fuselages that can make it to the outer atmosphere of Mars and heat shields that will not burn up on entry and landing gear that will protect the rovers while enabling them eventually to hatch, unscathed, from their protective shells. 

Image credit: Amazon Studios

I love its gently understated (and thus stunning) depiction of a history of aerospace engineering and scientific teamwork that is diverse, inclusive, collaborative, and constructively affective. 

No one in the film pretends neutrality. 

The entire project, Squyres reflects, “is bound together by love. You’re loving the rover, and you’re loving the people who you build it with. You’re loving the people you operated it with and who tended it with you so lovingly for so many years.”

In the end, the rovers die. They slow down; they lose memory. Their signals fade. And yet even their demise resonates with human death. One researcher describes how the process of her grandmother’s Alzheimer’s disease directly prepared her for the process of communicating with Spirit once the rover lost its memory (note the name: “Spirit”!).

The researcher’s grandmother’s loss of short-term memory taught her what to expect from Spirit, and what to ask of the rover. Where Spirit had previously “napped” several times daily to recharge batteries or conserve energy, when Spirit began to lose memory, the engineers at Mission Control would send a command to forestall recently-acquired data being lost or forgotten. (The reported command was literally: “No nap today. Please send data.”) 

The next day Spirit would begin again, her parts aging in the present, her short-term memory no longer with her, each day a new encounter with no sense of what had come immediately before. This is, and is not, a metaphor.

Have not all of us, at some point in life, watched someone beloved gradually become a person we do not know?

What, after all, makes someone—or something—a person?

(This work was supported in part by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation, “Collaborative Inquiries in Christian Theological Anthropology.”)

Christiana Zenner is an Associate Professor of Theology at Fordham University.