Watching a Film About Robots on Mars Through the Lens of ALS

'Good Night Oppy' prompts questions for this columnist and caregiver

Kristin Neva avatar

by Kristin Neva |

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Now that my husband, Todd, is paralyzed and uses a noninvasive ventilator, leaving the house is too hard on him. So when we have a date night, we watch a movie at home.

Last weekend, we watched “Good Night Oppy,” a documentary about twin rovers that NASA sent to Mars to find evidence of past water on the planet. They named the rovers Spirit and Opportunity, and from early in their development, each seemed to take on her own personality. Spirit was plagued with technical failures, but Opportunity passed every test with flying colors. Oppy was the lucky one.

Spirit vanished after landing; the mission team waited two long minutes before they heard from her. They joked that she always was a drama queen. Opportunity communicated upon landing. She stretched out her long neck, and with her two cameras mounted on her head like eyes, she sent back stereoscopic images from the bottom of a small crater. The lucky one had hit a 300 million-mile hole-in-one, which allowed the scientists to study Mars’ bedrock.

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How a Robot on Mars Improved My Attitude

The team only expected the robots to live 90 days. The engineers thought dust storms would cover the rovers’ solar panels, but it turned out the storms actually cleaned the panels on these plucky machines.

Operating well past their life expectancy, the rovers overcame various obstacles as their programmers made adaptations from Earth. Spirit got stuck in sand while following commands to move toward a crater. She kept turning her wheels, digging herself deeper and deeper. After other attempts to free her failed, the engineers told Spirit to back up at full speed. She managed to get out, and the team cheered.

The mission turned into a multiyear endeavor to explore Mars.

At the beginning of each year, a group of team members made bets on whether zero, one, or two rovers would be alive the following year. Every year Steve Squyres, the project’s principal scientist, voted that both rovers would be dead in the next year. Squyres said, “My logic being that someday I would eventually win, and when I did win, it would cheer me up at a time when I’d be feeling sad.”

I began to see the parallels to our life with ALS. I’m not going to start a betting pool with other caregiving spouses as to whether or not our loved ones will survive the year, but there’s that same feeling with ALS. There’s victory in making it through a cold or figuring out how to manage each stage of the disease, and yet we always live with the thought, “Will this be the last holiday or birthday?”

The team lost contact with Spirit after seven years, while Opportunity soldiered on. The engineers made adaptations for her after she was disabled. She drove backward, dragging one bum wheel, and extended the arthritic arm that carried a camera down in front of her after the team feared the arm would soon quit working. The deterioration of ability felt sadly familiar.

Opportunity rolled around Mars for almost 15 years. After a dark winter, the team couldn’t wake her and the mission was over. Squyers told the team, “I don’t have to tell you guys we get emotionally attached to these vehicles. … You use a word like ‘love’ advisedly, but we love these rovers.”

As the credits rolled, I wondered if the brilliant minds that can make robots navigate Mars could develop technology that would allow paralyzed people to sleep independently? The United States spent $24 billion on NASA in 2022. Could we use that money to fund adequate healthcare? Could we add home health hours to Medicare benefits, so the burden of 24-hour care for paralyzed loved ones doesn’t entirely fall on young children and exhausted spouses? Could we devote more research dollars toward finding a cure for ALS?

The documentary was a heartwarming story, but it also made me question whether or not we have the right priorities with the various ways we spend tax dollars in the U.S. I evaluate everything through the lens of living with ALS.

Note: ALS News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of ALS News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to ALS.


Roxanne Kusske avatar

Roxanne Kusske

Kristen, I love reading your columns! This one woke me up on whether or not we have the right priorities with the various ways we spend tax dollars in the U.S. It's rather maddening how healthcare and research needs to be first on that list, but it's not. My husband passed from ALS in 2021, I miss him so much, but am happy that he's not suffering anymore. I have a good friend whose husband is now suffering with Cancer, but sadly as with ALS, there's nothing anyone can do to make it go away, or even make it easier and/or less painful, without putting them in a sleeping coma from pain drugs! Hopefully having to rely on donations to fund ALS research won't have to be as much relied on, if more money is received from tax dollars, in the near future. Take care.

Kristin Neva avatar

Kristin Neva

Roxanne, thanks for commenting--I'm sorry for your loss. Yes, I hope we as a country can change our priorities!

Dagmar Munn avatar

Dagmar Munn

Great column Kristen! Isn't it uncanny how we both felt that the documentary related to ALS. I found Oppy to be a kindred spirit with ALS-like characteristics. Very inspiring to keep on, keeping on.

My column, for a comparison of perspectives: "How a Robot on Mars Improved My Attitude"


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