Kathy Sullivan, From Spacewalker To Deep Sea Diver

Kathy Sullivan and Victor Vescovo visited the Challenger Deep, at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, on June 7.
Kathy Sullivan and Victor Vescovo visited the Challenger Deep, the deepest known part of any ocean located at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, in June. Image courtesy of Caladan Oceanic
Kathy Sullivan and Victor Vescovo visited the Challenger Deep, at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, on June 7.
Kathy Sullivan and Victor Vescovo visited the Challenger Deep, the deepest known part of any ocean located at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, in June. Image courtesy of Caladan Oceanic

Kathy Sullivan, From Spacewalker To Deep Sea Diver

Former NASA astronaut Kathy Sullivan is the first human being to experience traveling to both space and the deepest part of the ocean.

On Oct. 11, 1984, Sullivan performed the first spacewalk by an American woman. And on June 7, 2020, Sullivan visited the Challenger Deep, which is the deepest part of the Marianas Trench, which in turn is the deepest known part of any ocean.

She was joined by Victor Vescovo, who commissioned and piloted the vessel that brought them there as part of their mission to map this little-traversed part of the ocean floor.

Nerdette host Greta Johnsen talked with Sullivan about diving to the bottom of the Marianas Trench, what they found there and why you too should follow your dreams.

Why visiting the Challenger Deep is such a rare event

Kathy Sullivan: This is called the Hadal Zone, after Hades, named for Hell. [The Hadal Zone] is all the parts of the ocean that are deeper than 6,000 meters, so basically deeper than 18,000 feet. And [the Challenger Deep] is almost twice that.

The first time any humans went to the Marianas Trench was in 1960 with the Trieste. The next time anybody went was in 2012 ⁠— Jim Cameron with his Deep Sea Challenger. So between the first dive and the second dive, 52 years went by. To understand how revolutionary Victor Vescovo’s Limiting Factor submarine is, you only need to know that in the span of seven days, we did three dives with two people a piece to the full depth of the ocean. So from once every 52 years to three times in seven days. From 10 minutes to maybe an hour on the bottom, to commonly three to four hours on the bottom.

What does a deep sea dive in a submarine feel like?

Sullivan: I liken it to a four-hour flight in the economy section of an airliner with the seat belt sign always on.

What the team was looking for

Sullivan: “What were you trying to find?” tends to be a question that is premised on you knew you were missing something. This area is so unknown and so little studied that every time you go there, you’re seeing things that haven’t been seen before. So our focus on the dives that we were doing was to refine and add precision to the topographic map of the very bottom of the Marianas Trench.

It’s a very complex geologic environment. There are creatures that live there. There’s not a lot of food down there so they’re not big creatures and they’re kind of sparse, but there are critters down there.

What she tells young people about pursuing their dreams

Sullivan: Never let anybody edit what you’re interested in. You will encounter people that may have opinions about whether boys are supposed to do this or girls are supposed to do that, and some of those people will voice their opinions and some will be loud about their opinions, but an opinion is nothing more than a burst of air unless you turn it into something else.

So don’t ever let anybody edit your interests. You are interested in whatever you are interested in and you are entitled to pursue and develop that interest. Find out if you are going to make it your favorite hobby or the centerpoint of your career. That’s for you to explore and determine.

… but expect setbacks

Sullivan: I really encourage people to dream big and stoke their curiosity as widely as possible. And then to recognize that you’re going to have to match that vision and that dream and that curiosity, you’re going to have to match it with hard work and you’re going to have to match it with some grit.

Life will throw rocks at you and give you setbacks. Those are in part to strengthen your character and test how strong your commitment really is to the passion or the vision or the dream that motivated you in the first place.

The conversation was lightly edited for clarity and brevity. Press the ‘play’ button to hear the full episode.