America’s NASA – the National Aeronautics and Space Administration – has been building robots to explore the planet Mars, and Ghanaian engineer Ashitey Trebi-Ollennu has been right within the action. Notably, he has been part of the Mars Rover and the InSight projects. Yet few know his name.
Ashitey was born in Accra, Ghana. His parents are from the Ga-Adangbe tribe. Growing up, the family lived close to an airport, and this grew Ashitey’s interest in planes. He, however, did not want to be a pilot. His dream was a world in which robots flew planes. “I was fascinated by replacing human pilots with computers. I was very interested in that as a young kid,” he told CNN.
Ashitey’s interest in robots and aeronautics grew. After completing secondary school in Ghana, he went for higher education in the U.K. (Bachelor of Engineering and a Ph.D.) and later landed a job at NASA in 1999. Soon after that, he was leading the team that built the Mars Rover, a robotic motor vehicle that landed on Mars and travels across the surface of the planet. The Mars Rover is controlled remotely.
Over the years, Ashitey has been involved in more Mars projects such as the Phoenix Mars Lander and the Mars Exploration Rover. He recently worked on the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, otherwise known as InSight. InSight is a robotic lander designed to study the deep interior of the planet Mars in order to understand how planets are formed. Ashitey was in charge of building the robot’s arm.
The robot’s arm – called the Instrument Deployment System – is crucial to the robot’s mission. Ashitey can be heard on a NASA podcast explaining the purpose of the arm. He says, “Insight’s robotic arm is called the Instrument Deployment System because its job is to take scientific instruments off of the InSight lander, and put them on the ground. There are also cameras on the arm to help it see what it’s doing. Having this arm perform its task correctly is crucial because if the instruments aren’t placed on the ground, InSight won’t be able to achieve its mission.”
The InSight lander was launched on 5 May 2018 and arrived on Mars on 26 November 2018. The journey was 484 million kilometers.
Ashitey has received numerous prizes and awards including the NASA Exceptional Engineering Achievement Medal (2008) and the Outstanding Engineer Award (2007) from IEEE Region 6.
Though Ashitey has spent much of his time abroad, he is still involved with Ghana. Ashitey hopes that more Ghanaian children will go into STEM and he hopes to provide them with the opportunity to do so. In 2011, he founded the Ghana Robotics Academy Foundation (GRAF), a nonprofit volunteer organization dedicated to motivating and inspiring young Ghanaians in STEM. GRAF won the Google RISE Award 2013.