From country NSW to NASA
Feb. 23, 2020
Fate arrived in the form of Greg Chamitoff, a Canadian-born lecturer who was returning to Sydney University after a stint as an astronaut. “He had some really interesting projects including some research he was involved in on the space station. That was with these robots called SPHERES, inspired by Star Wars .
“If you remember the very first movie and Luke Skywalker is on the Millennium Falcon training with his lightsaber and there’s this little orb floating around shooting little laser pulses at him. Basically, that is what inspired SPHERES. They’re soccer ball-size robots that float around the space station and move like satellites, and they’re test beds for different types of robotic algorithms.
“I initially started doing some research in the last year of my undergrad, helping to design the brains of these robots to be able to safely navigate around obstacles.” Chamitoff then supervised Morrell’s PhD ( “Enhancing 3D Autonomous Navigation Through Obstacle Fields: Homogeneous Localisation and Mapping, with Obstacle-Aware Trajectory Optimisation” ).
Silicon Valley may have been an easier target for Morrell, and more lucrative. But he wanted to work at NASA, and specifically on space exploration: “Something that people have never done before, pushing the frontiers of what humanity can do for humanity. That’s something that is enduringly motivating.”
He became a champion networker – joining societies and institutes, attending overseas conferences at his own strained expense, meeting as many people in the field as he could, and voraciously reading, learning and developing skills.
The harder he worked, the more “lucky” breaks came his way. In 2015 another astronaut, Sandy Magnus, invited Morrell to a dinner where he sat near – and greatly impressed – a deputy director of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Is a two-way manned flight to Mars technologically possible? Yes, Morrell says, stressing that he’s speaking on behalf of himself, not his employer. It will need vast money and resources. “I think there’s some good momentum … but I don’t think it’s going to be any one country doing it by themselves. I think it has to be co-ordination from many countries to make that possible.”
Is he surprised that he may have a role? “Yes. It’s an incredible opportunity and I want to make the most of being at NASA … to help make connections with the Australian space industry, which is growing a lot now.”
Morrell’s immediate challenge is the DARPA Subterranean Challenge, the third Grand Challenge sponsored by US Defense. “The first one spawned the autonomous driving industry,” Morrell notes.
Each team must use their robots to meet a series of underground challenges. In the process, they’ll finesse technology that can operate in the complete unknown.
Morrell says he’d still like to go to Mars – if he can spare the time from work and family. In the meantime, he finds the otherworldly relatively close to home.
“The national parks, the beach, the mountains … it’s just wonderful to be out and immersed in what is incredibly beautiful nature. There’re a lot of places around California that seem like different planets.”