One distinguished person who has contributed immensely to making Mars exploration a reality is Dr. Ashitey Trebi-Ollennu, a Ghanaian NASA robotics engineer at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Who is Dr. Ashitey Trebi-Ollennu?

NASA robotics engineer Ashitey Trebi-Ollennu was born in Accra by Ga (an ethnic group in Ghana) parents. He described his childhood as curiosity driven because he loved to know and see how things are put together. So, when he saw a radio, he wanted to know how the radio came to be and whether there were human beings in the radio set.

This curiosity got a better hold of him when he was in primary school because his family lived very close to the airport and planes usually took off very close to their house. Seeing those planes ever so often moved him to write letters to British Airways who then sent him many brochures of their work which had many airplane photos – this further increased his desire to be in the aeronautics industry.

Pursuing an education in science

Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology

Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology

He later had admission to the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, one of the finest public universities in Ghana. There, he attended for a semester after he left for the Queen Mary University of London to study for a degree in Aeronautics. He later specialized in Avionics and earned a degree after defending his thesis on the “review of 4D guidance techniques and the simulation of 4D aircraft guidance”.

His curiosity and love for learning led him to pursue a PhD in Control Systems Engineering at the Military College of Science Cranfield University which is also in London. At this University, he wrote his dissertation on “Robust Nonlinear Control Designs Using Adaptive Fuzzy Systems”.

This was all based on his passion for robotics and his desire to find out how to control flight systems without active human input. Afterwards, he pursued Project Management to be able to well manage various projects and teams. So, he enrolled in California Institute of Technology and earned a Certificate in Project Management, and later became a certified Project Management Professional (PMP).

The rise as a NASA robotics engineer

In 1999, Dr. Ashitey Trebi-Ollennu found himself within the walls of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), he rose through the ranks, gathering valuable skills, knowledge and experiences along the way. To rise he had to be assigned to various teams on different projects, suggest and test out hypotheses and probable solutions as well as have some ‘eureka’ moments – an epiphany.

As part of his responsibilities at NASA, he worked on flight projects, flight review boards, mission planning, technological tasks, developing proposals and also serving as a critic for Science Mission Directorate proposals and also Office of Education proposals. He has also served over the years at California Institute of Technology in the role of Product Delivery Manager and Chief for the Instrument Deployment System at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

Achievements and contributions

Dr. Ollenu Ashitey has been awarded many times for his valuable contributions to space exploration and success of various NASA missions. He finds his work to be so much fun and always credits his achievements to his intense curiosity to find out how aircrafts and spacecrafts can improve in terms of becoming more efficient and safer.

Following his successful career, the aeronautics engineer felt compelled to give back to society – particularly to ignite the curiosity spark in the minds of the less privileged. He followed up on this and in 2011 set up the Ghana Robotics Academy Foundation, whose main goal is to help many Ghanaian kids develop the love for science and technology by using the motivational effects of robotics (students see the scientific theories produce actual results).

Thousands of young Ghanaian minds have been able to excel at robotics competitions held in various venues all around the world.

Space exploration, a timeless curiosity

Humans have always been fascinated by what has been seen in the skies: Birds, the sun, stars, moon and other heavenly bodies. This fascination with that part of nature has led to some of the bravest and brightest to attempt providing explanations to why they worked the way they do and for humans to also experience more than they have always been experiencing.

This curiosity has gone a long way to improve our understanding of the universe and it has improved our lives by providing us with the internet, improving telecommunication and making us able to predict the weather more accurately thereby increasing our quality of life as well as saving lives.

The exploration of Mars, a pending subject

Mars rover. © WikiImages/

From various observations and experiments we have come to know that Mars – a sister planet to ours which has some interesting characteristics, has been widely discussed in the popular media. Even though no human being has stepped on the ‘Red Planet’, robots have been sent on missions to the planet to collect massive amounts of data to inform us.

The Martian world is very similar yet different from our home – the Earth. And with our desire to explore the unknown, robots have become indispensable tools with which we can do that without risking any human life.

Building robots that can withstand the harsh climate on Mars requires a special blend of engineering ingenuity and state of the art technology and scientific expertise. Limiting factors such as extreme temperatures, dust storms, radiation, and the rough terrain have to be taken into consideration in the development of the robots. Whiles wheel, suspension and navigation algorithms contribute to making the robots autonomous.

Dr. Ollenu Ashitey is part of the team that worked on the Phoenix robot arm and this robot was the first to actually sample Martian water in the form of ice. Special modifications were made to the arms to be able to dig and sample various materials that will give us any clues as to what is present on the surface of that planet.

Truly, Dr. Trebi Ollenu – Ashitey is mastering the art of building robots for Mars at NASA. However, back home in Ghana, the Ghanaian Art of Building Robots for Mars is being promoted and developed.