Inspirational in Space and Sea: An Introduction to Kathy Sullivan

Born in New Jersey in 1951, Kathy Sullivan was always an inquisitive, curious individual, but nobody could have ever predicted that this would culminate in her making history – twice.

As a child, Sullivan became fascinated by maps and the unique places they represented. She was encouraged to follow this interest by her parents and learn as much about the world around her as possible.

In 1978, having studied Earth Sciences at university, she was admitted into NASA’s astronaut program as part of the first cohort ever to include women. Just six years later, on 11th October 1984, she became the first American woman to walk in space. Her spacewalk was three and a half hours long and she has racked up a whopping 532 hours in space since then, making discoveries and adding to the knowledge the human race possesses of the solar system we are a part of. But she did not stop there.

Since her departure from NASA in 1993, Sullivan has held a range of prestigious posts,  including the Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under President Barack Obama.  She made history again on 7 June this year as, at the age of 68, she became the first woman ever to reach the deepest known point of the earth’s seabed, Challenger Deep. At 11km below the ocean’s surface, Challenger Deep takes approximately 4-5 hours to get to and is not inhabited by any fish. It is reported that temperatures inside the submarine can get as low as -5 degree celsius, withstanding a pressure of 16,000 PSI at the deepest point of the ocean. Sullivan, and her diving partner Victor Vescovo, spent approximately one and a half hours at Challenger Deep before beginning their journey back to the surface of the ocean. Following their ascent, EYOS, the company responsible for the logistics of the mission, facilitated a call between Sullivan, Vescovo and astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) which is situated 254 miles above Earth. This highlighted just how much humans have progressed and learnt as a result of technological advancements which could only be dreamt of a matter of years ago.

Sullivan’s outstanding achievements serve to inspire young girls interested in science and technology and demonstrate that anybody can thrive in these fields if they have enough passion and curiosity. This was also brought home to us in 2019 when two women completed the first-ever all-female space walk. These women, named Christina Koch and Jessica Meir, spent a remarkable seven hours outside of the ISS, replacing a failed power control unit which would later be sent back to Earth for inspection. This was a huge moment for women in science everywhere and was particularly poignant for Sullivan as Koch is reported to have worn the same life support system backpack that Sullivan wore on her first space walk in 1984.

This truly incredible lady is not ready to stop exploring just yet as there is still much to be done. But this will not be a solo effort. It takes scientists of all genders, ethnicities, religions and sexual orientations to truly understand the world. Scientists are all explorers in their very nature, striving to discover something new to aid human understanding, and with so much technological advancement, who knows what we will uncover next?