OKLAHOMA CITY —
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.
Morris was born in Enid but moved to Edmond as a child. His father, Joe, and stepmother, Jean, still live in Enid.
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.”
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 also was 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.”
He loved sports, played in a soccer league and was a passionate fan of Sooner football. He also dabbled in photography.
“I don’t know where he found time for all of this stuff,” Joe Warren said.
Morris’ variety of passions and welcome demeanor make his death all the more puzzling for his parents.
“We have no idea why he took his own life or anything else,” his mom, Nancy Warren said. “We have no idea. We talked to him (the Sunday night before his death) and he seemed OK.”
Though a specific reason for Morris’ death is not known, the Warrens believe a number of things could have contributed to his decision.
Nancy Warren said her son did sound depressed when she spoke with him that Sunday night. After their son’s death, the Warrens learned Morris had a two-hour phone conversation with a former girlfriend after he had spoken with his parents.
Morris also was experiencing pressures from work as the launch date for Curiosity crept closer. Morris also recently had purchased a home and may have had a hard time making its payments.
Joe Warren says Morris should be forgiven for a momentary lapse in judgment.
“Depression’s a disease, and it can get you at that one moment where you think there’s no way out and everyone would be better off if you’re gone,” he said.
“Richard packed more in that one short lifetime than a lot of people could if they lived 10 lifetimes,” Nancy Warren added.
Morris’ death hurt back home, but it also affected his friends and co-workers in California. Callas says Morris’ sudden absence devastated the office.
“It was a big loss because he really was universally liked,” he said. “In any environment like this you have a collection of all these people with all these personalities. With Rich, his personality was always kind and laid-back and friendly and you could always make a joke with him.”
Because Morris was so well liked, his associates at the Jet Propulsion Lab sought ways to honor his life. Soon they realized there was no better way to honor a space man’s legacy than by naming something on the planet he spent most of his professional life studying.
They called Morris’ family and told them the news.
“They wanted to make sure we didn’t have a problem with them naming a feature on Mars after him,” Joe Warren said. “Obviously, we were thrilled.”
Weeks later, the Warrens received a letter informing them that a hill on Mars had been selected to honor Morris. Not just any hill — Morris Hill.
“I have a good friend who said, ‘You know, I don’t think I know anyone who has something named after them except for Richard. On Earth or Mars,’” Nancy Warren said.
Earlier this month, NASA released a panoramic view of Mars put together using hundreds of photos taken by the rover Opportunity. Morris Hill is visible in that panorama.
As nice as the tribute is, the Warrens want their son’s legacy to mean more than a hill in outer space. Nancy Warren said her son’s life and strong work ethic can be a lesson for a younger generation.
“I want kids to realize they can go to school and they can do anything they want to do,” she said. “You just have to decide you want to do it. Even if you’re poor and you have to work through it and it takes you 10 years to get out of school, what’s 10 years to the rest of your life?”
His family has established a Richard Morris Memorial Fund through the Oklahoma City Community Foundation. The fund will either benefit children or students.
Though his life was shorter than hoped, Morris used the time he had to touch as many people as he could. It seems appropriate that his name will forever grace a hill on Mars.
Raised on red dirt, but forever alive on the Red Planet.