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Laramie Movie Scope:
Good Night Oppy

The little Mars robots that could

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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December 8, 2022 – Being an amateur astronomer, I've seen a lot of those good Cosmos-style space science documentaries on PBS, and this movie is a lot like those. This one is about the history and missions of NASA's twin Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity.

The movie covers the history behind the two rovers, as well as the construction of the robots, the complexity of Mars landings, the mission, and the legacy of the rovers.

It all begins with Steve Squyres, principal scientist of the Viking program which sent two landers to Mars in 1976. He had been writing proposals to NASA since the mid-1980s for robot landers for 10 years with no success.

Squyres said, “I knew from my training as a geologist that if we could get a rover down on the Martian surface and it could move around and travel and actually look close up at the rocks, we might find out the truth about Martian history.” The Viking orbiters provided evidence that there may have been water on Mars sometime in the past.

Rovers could provide more evidence of water, specifically, had there been water on Mars in the past? If there had been water on Mars in the past, was it the kind of water in terms of acidity, pH level, that currently supports life on earth? Working with scientists and engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who had already designed a Mars landing system, Squyres and his team finally got approval from NASA to go ahead with the twin rover project.

Squyres was elated when the proposal was accepted, he said, “But, if I had known at that time what an arduous path it was going to be from that point to actually get to the surface of Mars I wouldn't have felt quite as elated as I did.” The launch date in 2003 was set by the alignments of planets, and that is a rock hard deadline. The teams had two years to design and build the rovers and perfect the landing systems.

There was not time to do all the systems testing that they would have liked to do, but they did manage to make the launch dates. There were two successful launches and two successful landings on opposite sides of Mars. Impressive feats, since Mars had become a spaceship graveyard over the years, with several failed landings.

On the six month journey to Mars, the spacecraft were subject to unusually high levels of charged solar particles which wiped out the computer programs on the rovers. Scientists were able to detect the problem and re-program the rovers prior to landing. This would not be the last time computer glitches on the rovers would have to be fixed from millions of miles away.

When the rovers started exploring Mars, they discovered that the sands of Mars created a surface where the rovers could get stuck, and they did. The fine sand also worked its way into the machinery causing wheels to seize and joints on the mechanical arm to stiffen, like the joints of an old person.

The rovers did find evidence of past water on Mars, and they accumulated a lot of other geological data. The missions were wildly successful since the problem of dust buildup on the rover solar collectors turned out not to be the problem it was anticipated to be. The mission called for the rovers to last 90 days on Mars. Instead, the Spirit rover lasted over six years, and the Opportunity rover lasted over 14 years.

People who work with robots often become emotionally attached to them, the way that people become attached to pets, and it was the same with Spirit and Opportunity. People who worked with these two Martian robots for years got choked up talking about their feelings, especially when the two robots finally went silent and the missions ended.

This movie isn't just about the science, it is about the relationships between people and robots. It is about people who work for years toward a common goal, and who finally see their hopes and dreams come alive. It is about people who excel at finding solutions and fixing engineering problems. It is inspiring. This film rates a B.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff (no extra charges apply). I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2022 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)

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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at dalek three zero one nine at gmail dot com [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]