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Mars rovers Opportunity and Spirit departed Earth in 2003. Upon successfully touching down on the red planet, they were only expected to last about 90 days. The scientists and engineers at NASA were flabbergasted that the pair survived for many years.

In his latest documentary, “Good Night Oppy,” director Ryan White examines the doting relationship between the control room crew members – people from across the globe – and their robotic progeny. It’s a story of gumption: When a machine gets mired in quicksand 140 million miles away, how do you rescue it? 

Why We Wrote This

When director Ryan White talks about his documentary “Good Night Oppy,” featuring Mars space rovers and their human handlers, he describes the bonds and emotions of family – and the teamwork it took to exceed expectations.

The connection between humans and nonhumans interested the director. As did ideas like discovery and exploration, especially as they relate to childlike awe and imagination. 

“Why can’t we as adults have that feeling anymore?” he asks in a recent Zoom interview, adding, “This group of humans did. They were going to a place that had literally never been seen before by mankind. And they were doing it by this avatar of theirs that they had created by their own design. And so I wanted the audience of the film to feel that sense of wonder.”

It takes a village to raise a robot. A new documentary, “Good Night Oppy,” chronicles the familial bond between a pair of Mars rovers and their human “parents” at NASA. Opportunity and Spirit departed Earth in 2003. Upon successfully touching down on the red planet, the duo were only expected to last about 90 days. The scientists and engineers were flabbergasted that the pair survived for many years. In his latest film, director Ryan White (“Good Ol’ Freda,” “The Case Against 8”) examines the doting relationship between the control room crew and their robotic progeny. It’s a story of gumption. When a robot gets mired in quicksand 140 million miles away, how do you rescue it? “Good Night Oppy” is a testament to egoless team effort. The film ends its multidecade story with the launch of a new rover named Perseverance. Mr. White spoke recently with the Monitor via Zoom. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What were the key themes you wanted to explore in the movie?

First of all, the connection between human and nonhuman was something I was very interested in. … And then another big one is this idea of discovery and exploration, and especially with that sense of wonder and awe that we often have as children when we use our imaginations. … Why can’t we as adults have that feeling anymore? And this group of humans did. They were going to a place that had literally never been seen before by mankind. And they were doing it by this avatar of theirs that they had created by their own design. And so I wanted the audience of the film to feel that sense of wonder.

Why We Wrote This

When director Ryan White talks about his documentary “Good Night Oppy,” featuring Mars space rovers and their human handlers, he describes the bonds and emotions of family – and the teamwork it took to exceed expectations.

What were your favorite backstories about what inspired these scientists and engineers to choose their careers?

I think it’s important to remind people that this isn’t just Americans working on these projects. So, Vandi Verma, she’s a rover driver. We have a little bit of her backstory in our film. She’s from India and she got a book on space exploration for her [seventh] birthday, and she knew that’s what she wanted to do. … Almost everyone in our film was an outsider. … We wanted to be very conscious of making sure people, kids, especially watching the film, would see themselves represented on the screen by a potential role model. Like [Ashitey Trebi-Ollennu] from Ghana, who grew up taking radios apart in his small town, is now one of the lead engineers.

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