Over this past weekend, a significant event in exploration history quietly took place. This past Sunday, former astronaut Kathy Sullivan left the surface of the Earth behind once again, but this time she was traveling in a different direction. Sullivan, who holds the distinction of being the first American woman to ever take a spacewalk, has now joined a incredibly rare group of explorers by becoming the first woman to visit the deepest point in the ocean—the legendary Challenger Deep.
Back in 1984, Sullivan was part of a NASA space shuttle mission that saw her spend 3.5 hours in an extravehicular capacity, during which she and a fellow astronaut demonstrated the ability to refuel a satellite while in orbit. She would go on to be a crew member on two other shuttle missions, including the one that deployed the Hubble Telescope in 1990. But after retiring from NASA in 1996, she went to work for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, before later holding positions at the American Association of Advancement of Science and serving in the Obama Administration. Despite no longer being an astronaut, she continued her pursuit of knowledge and exploration. That culminated with her expedition this past weekend, which saw her travel 35,810 feet (10,914 meters) below the surface of the ocean.
Sullivan, along with expedition-backer Victor Vescovo, spent an hour and a half in the Challenger Deep. While there, they took photos, collected samples, and mapping this remote place where only a handful of people have ever ventured. Upon returning to the surface, she then placed a call to her fellow astronauts on the International Space Station to compare notes on their current adventures. Just a week earlier, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley made history of their own by becoming the first to reach orbit aboard a commercial spacecraft, making it a banner week for those who support ongoing efforts to explore both our own planet and outer space.
Sullivan and Vescovo traveled into the Challenger Deep aboard a small submersible known as the Limiting Factor. This specially designed and purpose-built watercraft is meant to be used on repeated missions into the depths of the ocean, so it is possible we’ll see it pressed into service again in the future. On the rare occasions in the past when someone has dove into the Challenger Deep, their vehicles usually ended up in a museum. This one could be used again in the semi-near future.
Congrats to both Sullivan and Vescovo on their accomplishment. And double congratulations to Kathy for becoming the first person to both have been in space and to the deepest part of our planet. That is indeed an accomplishment for the ages.