Only one person can say they’ve both visited space and the deepest part of the ocean. In 1984, astronaut Kathy Sullivan was the first American woman to spacewalk. That experience wasn’t even the peak of her career — it was only the beginning of it. She continued to become a leader in space and ocean exploration.
In June 2020, she became the first woman to travel to Challenger Deep, the deepest point in the ocean.
Foundation for Exploration
Kathryn Sullivan grew up during the space race and was fascinated by the people who explored the unknown.
“I was always following the early astronauts, Jacques Cousteau and the early aquanauts. They were inquisitive people,” Sullivan told CNN Travel. “They were clever people that could figure out how to go make things happen.”
Despite her curiosity for understanding how things work, and the fact that her father was an aerospace engineer, Sullivan never dreamed she would become an astronaut. She had many interests and a knack for learning languages. When she started college at the University of California, Santa Cruz, she intended to study Russian. Then she took an oceanography course to fulfill a science requirement for her degree. She loved the class so much that she pivoted to oceanography.
Next, she studied marine geology at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada. While there, she mapped a portion of the sea floor and assisted with field research on the volcanic processes that make the ocean crust. Later, in an oral history interview for Johnson Space Center, she explained that her goal as a student was to eventually get into a research submarine and explore the bottom of the sea.
“That’s what I was heading toward and aiming everything toward until NASA came along,” she said.
New Frontiers in Space
While she worked toward her Ph.D., her brother, an avid pilot, encouraged her to apply to NASA. It was 1976, and the space administration started to recruit women and minorities. She was focused on oceanography and didn’t expect to be selected, although she saw the parallels between the mission specialist role and oceanographic expeditions.
She joined NASA in 1978 as part of the first cohort of astronauts to include women, according to the New York Times. This launched a 15-year career in space. In 1984, she became the first American woman to walk in space when she floated outside the Challenger space shuttle to repair a part. Her career continued with a second historic mission in 1990. She was part of the Discovery space shuttle crew that deployed the Hubble Space Telescope, the most powerful telescope in space for 30 years. (Soon to be succeeded by the James Webb Space Telescope.) She rounded out her time at NASA on the Space Shuttle Atlantis mission in 1992. In total, she logged 532 hours in space.
The Deepest Part of the Ocean
From the unique vantage point of space, she was more motivated than ever to understand and improve life on Earth, she explained in a lecture captured by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. After NASA, she returned to her original passion for oceanography. Just like the astronauts and aquanauts who she observed as a child, Sullivan felt called to explore the most desolate and unknown regions of the world.
According to Business Insider, after NASA, Sullivan served as chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In 2004, President George W. Bush appointed her to the National Science Board. Later, President Obama appointed her to serve as NOAA’s deputy administrator in 2011, and she became administrator in 2014.
In June 2020, having already achieved numerous accomplishments, she broke another barrier for women in STEM. At age 68, Sullivan traveled to the deepest point in the ocean, a location so remote and dangerous that only seven other people have been there.
Business Insider reports that astronaut Kathy Sullivan joined millionaire adventurer Victor Vescovo in a submarine to explore Challenger Deep, the lowest point in the Mariana Trench. Located 200 miles from Guam and seven miles below the ocean’s surface, she traveled to a point that is so deep it could fit Mount Everest inside, with a mile to spare. Just like her space travels, it was a risky but rewarding mission.
She leaves a lasting legacy for women in space and other scientific fields. Not only can you be the “first” to do something, but you can also be a whole person with diverse interests and skills that evolve with age. Sullivan proves that women can explore the depths of Earth and beyond.