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New film Good Night Oppy puts spotlight on the ‘lovable’ Opportunity Mars rover

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The Current18:57The ‘lovable’ Opportunity Mars rover

When Bekah Sosland Siegfriedt was in Grade 8, she witnessed something that sparked her love for space exploration: the launch of the Mars Exploration Rover mission.

“When I saw Spirit and Opportunity, these robot explorers on Mars … searching specifically for water, I thought, well, maybe this is something I can do,” she told The Current’s Matt Galloway.

Siegfriedt had already been fascinated by the bright stars and galaxies in the sky above her hometown of Fredericksburg, Texas, and the 1997 movie Contact

But she said it was “really cool” seeing these robots with human-like features, from eyes to an arm, exploring the Red Planet.

“I think that’s what [struck] me first, was seeing how we transformed these robots into people so we can do what people can’t do currently,” she said.

WATCH: Opportunity’s launch in 2003

Now the flight director at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Siegfriedt has gone from watching rovers to designing, testing and even launching NASA’s latest Mars rover, Perseverance.

Siegfriedt is featured in Ryan White’s new documentary, Good Night Oppy, currently screening at the Toronto International Film Festival.

The film focuses on Opportunity, the Mars rover initially designed to last 90 days on the planet but ended up staying for 15 years — and the scientists and engineers captivated by it.

“It was a series of all of these people that I was waiting to say, ‘No, we’re not going to work with you, you little documentary filmmaker,’ — [they] kept saying yes,” White told Galloway.

“I think it’s a testament to this story and how, I think, heartwarming and uplifting it is.”

The Opportunity rover during the exploration of Meridiani Planum on Mars, where jarosite was first discovered on the planet. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/ASU)

A feeling like childbirth

White said he was “hooked” the moment Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment production company pitched the film idea, but was concerned about finding people who could communicate the story with emotion.

“The robot can’t talk,” he said. “Now we have to go to NASA and find scientists and engineers who I thought, in my preconceived notions, would be very unemotional, detached people.”

“But time and time again, we were shocked when we interviewed these people, how much they wore their heart on their sleeve.”

Siegfriedt said there’s a lot of work that goes into building rovers — and about “a thousand, million things have to go right” for a successful landing.

“So we’re all counting on each other. All of the pieces have to fit together perfectly. We have to communicate a lot,” she said.

“You see the emotion in the movie from all the people when we land — and it really is the most incredible accomplishment that I have ever felt, when we’ve landed something.” 

Members of the Perseverance rover team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory react in mission control after receiving confirmation the spacecraft successfully touched down on Mars on Feb. 18, 2021. (Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images)

Siegfriedt, a mother of two, compares the process of building and landing a rover to delivering a baby.

“You just are like focused on getting this child out of your body safely — and when that happens and the child is brought up to you, you have this moment of like, ‘It’s over,'” she said. “‘We did this, I did this, my body did this’ — and it’s very similar to landing a spacecraft on Mars.”

Opportunity catches its own silhouette in this late-afternoon image taken by the rover’s rear hazard avoidance camera. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

That emotional attachment is mirrored by other engineers and scientists in the film, according to White.

“When Spirit dies, [rover driver Ashley Stroupe] kind of tears up in her interview,” he said.

“She says, ‘I know this is going to sound crazy because it seems like I’m talking about a person, and she wasn’t a person.'”

To the people involved in the mission, he says, the rovers were not just robots. “It is a creature that you fall in love with, a non-human creature that you say goodbye to at the end of the film.”

And to a degree, he argues, it’s by design.

“[NASA] have purposely created lovable creatures that everyone — the taxpayers that are paying for this — can fall in love with and go along for the journey,” he said.

Perseverance

Earth’s last contact with Opportunity was in mid-June 2018. A dust storm on Mars’s surface deprived its solar-powered batteries, forcing it to enter into hibernation and lose contact with Earth.

Siegfriedt said it was one of the most “intense” Mars dust storms recorded by NASA.

Some hoped Opportunity would be revive after its hibernation, despite its age and “mechanical issues and software issues,” Siegfriedt explained.

But it never did. On Feb. 13, 2019, NASA officials declared the Opportunity mission complete.

Today, Siegfriedt and her colleagues are working on the next generation of rovers — like Perseverance, which launched on July 30, 2020, and successfully landed on Mars seven months later.

When Perseverance sent its first selfie upon landing, Siegfriedt could feel the emotions running through her again.

“That moment … seeing the rover and seeing her eyes and seeing her arm and seeing all the parts of her, is a sense of awe and wonder because it takes you back and reminds you we are there to search for life on other planets,” she said.

“For me personally, that being my dream as a young girl and being reminded of that often at work, it’s incredible.”


Produced by Julie Crysler.



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