A young Richard Morris stood in his Edmond living room, light saber drawn. It was the 4-year-old's birthday, and the plastic sword was a gift. The moment is frozen forever, not in carbonite, but as a framed photograph in his mother's home.
Even as a child, when Morris looked to the stars, he saw possibility.
“He always wanted to be involved with the space program,” stepfather Joe Warren said. “Of course, when he was young he wanted to be an astronaut but his eyesight wasn't quite there. He had to have glasses and everything, so he knew he wasn't (going to be one), but he was determined to do some kind of space-related stuff.”
More than 20 years later, Morris realized his dream as a mission manager of NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Mission for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology.
He watched on Earth as the rovers “Spirit” and “Opportunity” left tracks on the planet's red and vacant soil in 2004. He looked through images of Mars never before seen by human eyes. It was pioneering in its truest sense.
Although Morris was living a lifelong dream, something else might have been missing in his life. His time with the rover project ended in the October 2011 after committing suicide at age 37. He died a month before the Mars Science Laboratory launched another rover he had worked on, the “Curiosity,” currently en route to Mars. Morris' family, though shocked by his death, hopes the time he did spend on Earth serves as inspiration to never give up.
Bringing peace to project
In 1998, Morris graduated from the University of Southern California with a degree in aerospace engineering. After interning for a few defense companies, Morris landed a job at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Pasadena, Calif.
He started out doing programming work for the Mars Rover Mission but steadily climbed his way up the hierarchy and became a mission manager on the Spirit and Opportunity project.
The pressures of navigating a $400 million asset on the surface of a distant planet can add up quickly, considering scientists only expected the rovers to last 90 days on the Martian surface. Both rovers have been operating on the planet now for eight years.
John Callas, project manager of Spirit and Opportunity, said Morris brought a warm presence to the project that kept everyone at ease.
“He had a very laid-back attitude,” Callas said. “The project was very high stress and he was quiet, cool, friendly, which was very welcoming in that kind of stressful work environment.”
‘A Renaissance man'
Morris' love for space could only be matched by his love for music.
“He was almost like a Renaissance man, truthfully,” Joe Warren said. “He was an extremely accomplished engineer on the Mars program, but he was also an accomplished musician and continued to pursue that career.”
During his time at Edmond Memorial High School, from which he graduated in 1992, Morris played trumpet for the school band. He was good enough to be offered a band scholarship to the University of Oklahoma, but was forced to decline after learning band members were not allowed to pursue a degree in engineering.
Even after Morris began his career with the Jet Propulsion Lab, he still kept his music dreams alive. He taught himself to play guitar and joined the Los Angeles-area 70s cover band Marcia, Marcia, Marcia.
“I went to listen to him,” Callas said. “It's very different from what you would expect from the pocket protector kind of environment where he worked.”
Though his job and music took up a lot of his time, Morris still found time to pursue many other hobbies. He participated in the Jet Propulsion Lab's theater group, acting in performances like “Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and “Metamorphoses.”