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Reaching for the heavens

Good Night Oppy, which chronicles the Spirit and Opportunity Martian rovers, is a wonderful and gentle documentary that celebrates the joy of scientific curiosity while avoiding the dregs of scientistic philosophy.


MPAA Rating: PG
USCCB Rating: Not rated at the time of this review
Reel Rating: 4 out of 5 reels

In every culture that has existed, at any time in its history, God has always resided “in the heavens.” When humans look up towards the sky, whether filled with clouds or stars, they are always looking, in some way, towards the divine. Space exploration continues this wonder—not because God resides somewhere “out there,” but the time, devotion, effort, and creativity that such an endeavor requires brings out the best in God-given talents.

Good Night Oppy is a new documentary on Amazon Prime that chronicles one of the most successful of these endeavors, the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, which collectively spent two decades exploring the surface of the planet Mars. It is a movie of pure joy, a celebration of the challenges, disappointments, and ecstasies that come with discovery. And not just discovery of the outside universe, but also of the inner spirit of man.

Before the rovers, NASA had three successful landings on Mars, but many more unsuccessful. The program, however, would not simply land on the surface but would gently place two moveable robots that could take photos, analyze soil samples, and even weather storms. The primary goal was to find evidence of liquid water and possibly even microbial life.

The first, named Spirit, was led by newcomer Jennifer Trosper; the second, named Opportunity (Oppy for short), was led by veteran scientist Steven Squyres. Like most NASA missions, there were many problems and teeth-grinding moments. But both robots reached Mars safely in the spring of 2004. The robots were built to function for ninety days. Anything longer was “just a bonus.” In fact, Spirit didn’t stop until 2010, and Oppy continued all the way until 2018, far longer than anticipated.

Along the way, they took thousands of photos and found plenty of evidence that Mars had been warmer and wetter at some point in its past. Whether they found conclusive evidence of life is up for debate.

While the imagination of man can often be a testament to original sin, it can also be a witness to the glory of God. What is most astounding about the rover program was the engineers’ ability to troubleshoot problems based purely on computer screen data sent by a robot fifty-four million miles away. At one point, Spirit’s top right wheel stopped working. The engineers got the robot to swivel around and travel backwards, carrying the lame leg behind it. Spirit continued to operate, despite this awkward position, for another few years. Despite changing political climates and budgets constrictions, they sallied onward. This program, far from a tower of Babel, was a triumph of rational thinking, cooperation, and using talents humbly.

When scientists and engineers speak of Spirit and Oppy, it is hard for these top minds to avoid anthropomorphism. They always refer to Oppy as “she,” not “it.” When Oppy finally dies, there isn’t a dry eye in the house. They talk of its “personality” and “stubbornness.” This is not, however, because they really think robots are ethical beings, but because Oppy does, in a sense, encapsulate their hopes and dreams.

Its longevity also marks their own lives. When Steven Squres, Oppy’s operational chief, starts the mission, he is young and vibrant. Speaking at the end, he is gray and mature. Spirit’s chief, Jennifer Trosper, was a new mother when the rover launched. By its completion, her children were heading off to build their own lives on their own. These robots didn’t replace their own families but provided meaningful context and helped them appreciate the fleeting, swift nature of time.

Good Night Oppy is a wonderful and gentle documentary that celebrates the joy of scientific curiosity while avoiding the dregs of scientistic philosophy so prevalent in many similar pictures. In 2005, a survey of religious belief was taken from a wide variety of academics in sciences. The highest rate of theism was among astronomers and cosmologists, the lowest among sociologists and psychologists.

When one gazes at the stars, it is easy to see the Lord. We might have a genuine affection for Oppy, but only because we love He who enabled us to create it.

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About Nick Olszyk 189 Articles
Nick Olszyk teaches theology at Marist Catholic High School in Eugene, Oregon. He was raised on bad science fiction movies, jelly beans, and TV shows that make fun of bad science fiction movies. Visit him online at his website, Catholic Cinema Crusade.

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