Posts Tagged ‘NASA’

“GOOD NIGHT OPPY” My rating: B (Prime Video)

105 minutes | MPAA: PG

The robot/computer that develops a human personality is a staple of science fiction. “Good Night Oppy” is an inspiring real-life twist on that cliche.

Launched in the summer of 2003, the roving robots Spirit and Opportunity were designed to explore Mars (the “twins” landed on opposite sides of the Red Planet). NASA scientists and engineers designed the robots to function for 90 Martian days; anything longer would be frosting on the cake.

Spirit kept operating — exploring and photographing the planet’s terrain, picking up and examining geological specimens and searching for signs of water — for six years.

Her sister Opportunity (known affectionately as Oppy) kept chugging along for an unbelievable 14 years, surviving massive dust storms, electrical strikes and the mechanical version of arthritis (shit wears out).

Ryan White’s documentary “Good Night Oppy” is an in-depth look at the Spirit/Opportunity mission, from early designs and testing to the day-to-day operation and maintenance of the rovers on the planet’s surface.

There is utterly convincing footage of Spirit and Oppy going about their work on Mars, courtesy of the visual artists at Industrial Light & Magic, and of course there are plenty of photos taken by the rovers of their environment.

We also meet a dozen or so of the individuals who created the program and kept the robots rolling along for years past their expiration dates. A popular cliche casts scientists and engineers as creatures of fact with little room for sentiment, yet the testimony of these slide-rule types suggests that over time they came to regard the rovers, especially Oppy, as a member of the family, at least as empathetic a being as a cat or dog.

Physically there is little human about the rovers. They look a bit like aircraft carriers on treaded wheels, with the “deck” a couple of feet above the ground. Towering over the body is a “neck” and “head” equipped with cameras…the rovers were deliberately designed so that the cameras’ POV would be that of a five-foot-tall human strolling across the Martian surface.

The humans’ affections for the rovers were built largely on the day-in-day-out routine established over the machines’ lifetimes. There were morning wakeup calls featuring popular songs blasted into space…apparently Spirit and Opportunity were programmed to react like a human being awakened by a clock radio.

Moreover, the robots had been programmed to act autonomously in certain situations (there was a lag time of 10 minutes between NASA sending an order and the machines receiving it), and this sometimes gave the impression that they were exhibiting free will.

The NASA folk recognize, of course, that these are machines. But who can blame them for projecting their parental impulses on these two metallic space babies? Or for mourning when at long last Oppy went to sleep during a long Martian dust storm and never again awoke?

The marvel of White’s film (co-written with Helen Kearns) is that we don’t sneer at this anthropomorphic proclivity. Rather, we buy into it,

Is it possible to love a chunk of metal and plastic? “Good Night Oppy” certainly makes the case.

| Robert W. Butler

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Octavia Spencer, Taranji P. Henson, Janelle Monae

Octavia Spencer, Taranji P. Henson, Janelle Monae

“HIDDEN FIGURES” My rating: B+

127 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

A piece of  fact-based historical uplift that flirts with sappiness but never succumbs, “Hidden Figures” is a late addition to the 2016 awards race.

The story it tells — largely unknown until the film’s publicity drive kicked in a few weeks ago — is kinda jaw dropping. And the three lead performances instantly land on the list of Oscar contenders.

During the early days of the American space program — back when a mechanical computer took up an entire floor of an office building — NASA hired two dozen mathematically gifted African American women to perform  complex calculations using nothing more than their brains and slide rules.

These women were referred to as “computers” — that was their official job designation.

Despite being second-class citizens both on and off the job, they made possible John Glenn’s breakthrough orbital flight and gave the U.S.A. a fighting chance in the space race.

Writer/director Theodore Melfi (he was behind the sublimely funny Bill Murray starrer “St. Vincent”) balances the private stories of three of these women against the grand historic sweep of those years. The film works equally well as a satisfying celebration of personal triumph and as a symbol of national pride.

The screenplay (with Allison Schroeder) wastes no time in illustrating the times.  Three “computers” are on their long daily commute to their jobs in north Virginia when their car breaks down.  The white highway patrolman who investigates their stalled vehicle at first exhibits the overt racism of the times.  Only when he learns that the three are helping Uncle Sam beat the Commies to the stars does he drop the attitude and ensure they are sent safely on their way.

Once at work, the women must put up with more crap.  The space program (it wouldn’t take the name NASA for several years) and its white management practice what might be called “racism with a tight smile.”

The African American women work in their own building separate from everyone else. There is minimal interaction between them and the engineers and scientists who daily shower them with mathematical problems.  Like the field hands of a Southern plantation, they produce the wealth but get none of the credit.


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