Kathryn Sullivan Was The First Woman To Walk In Space – And Now She’s Made History All Over Again

Kathryn Sullivan is well used to doing extraordinary things. After all, she was the first American woman to walk in space during a 1984 flight aboard the Challenger space shuttle. Once her storied career as an astronaut was at an end, she turned her attention to the science and wonder of our planet’s oceans. But it seems that her thirst for adventure was far from slaked, and in June 2020, aged 68, she embarked on yet another perilous mission.

Sullivan flew on three space shuttle missions, journeying into the hostile environment of space. She spent a total of 532 hours orbiting around the Earth, an achievement that earned her a place in the Astronaut Hall of Fame in 2004. But her 2020 mission — 36 years after her historic space walk — saw her traveling to a completely different but equally dangerous – and intriguing environment. 

Sullivan’s spacewalk came on her first flight on the Challenger space shuttle in October 1984. Talking to the BBC in June 2020, with admirable modesty Sullivan said, “My spacewalk was three and a half hours long. It’s a spacewalk that counts but that’s actually very short as spacewalks go. I was just delighted to see women come after me and do, you know, much more elaborate, much more complicated, much more demanding spacewalks.”

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We’ll come back to Sullivan’s intrepid 2020 mission shortly, but first let’s learn a little more about this fascinating woman who has been prepared to face real hazards throughout her life. Kathryn Dwyer Sullivan was born on October 3, 1951 in Paterson, New Jersey. When she was six her family moved to California in pursuit of her father’s career as an aerospace engineer.

Speaking to the BBC in June 2020, Sullivan remembered her childhood and her parents with evident fondness. She said, “I was always a pretty adventurous and curious child with interests wider and more varied than the stereotype of a little girl. They [my parents] really fed our curiosity on anything we were curious about or interested in.”

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Sullivan expanded on how her parents, Donald and Barbara, raised her and her older brother. She recalled, “They were our best allies to explore that interest further and see where it might take us. It might die out in a couple of days, it might be something that became our best hobby or it might turn into the central focus of our career.”

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The Sullivan household avidly consumed serious magazines such as National Geographic and Life. In a 2007 oral history interview on the NASA website Sullivan described her excitement as a child when she read about “these breathtaking, amazing stories about the new space frontier…It was fabulous.” She might not have realized it as a youngster, but surely the seeds of her future career as an astronaut were being sown. 

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Sullivan attended Taft High School in Woodland Hills, California, graduating in 1969. During her schooling, a natural aptitude for modern languages emerged and she became fluent in both German and French. This made it seem natural that foreign languages would be Sullivan’s major when she went to study at the University of California in Santa Cruz as she wanted to study Russian.

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However, the University of California insisted that its students take a mixed program of courses rather than solely studying their major. In her freshman year, Sullivan reluctantly decided to try her hand at math, marine biology and oceanography. In her 2020 book Handprints on Hubble: An Astronaut’s Story of Invention, Sullivan remembered her initial resistance to studying science.

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Sullivan wrote, “I argued fiercely against what I considered a needless delay on my path to Russian fluency and my dream life of exploration and adventure.” However, as she recalled, “Luckily for me, I failed to win the argument. The mandatory science courses foisted on me that day introduced me to the earth sciences — geology and oceanography, specifically — and to young faculty scientists who were living exactly the kind of inquisitive and adventurous life I had dreamt of for so many years.”

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Ultimately, the sciences won out and when Sullivan graduated from college in 1973 it was with an earth sciences bachelor’s degree. Her ambition now was to pursue a career in oceanography. Her next move was to Halifax, Nova Scotia to study for a doctorate in geology at Dalhousie University. During her time at Dalhousie she took part in a study of the sea mountains off the coast of Newfoundland. And, as we’ll see, her post-astronaut career would become increasingly focused on the ocean. 

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Then, in 1976, a fateful moment in Sullivan’s life came when her older brother played a key role in his sister’s future. While studying up in Canada, NASA’s recruitment advertisements for new astronauts passed Sullivan by. However, she was spending Christmas at the family home in California when her brother, who was a keen pilot and graduate engineer, showed her the NASA application paperwork he’d already filled in.

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By her own account in the interview she gave to NASA in 2007, Sullivan’s brother badgered her about the interview all through the Christmas break. She remembered him saying, “You should try. They say they want women and minorities to apply, and how many 26-year-old female Ph.D.s can there be in the world? You should give this a try.”

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At first, Sullivan resisted her brother’s cajoling. She recalled, “My head at that time was still just on the oceanography side of things, and so I blew him off. ‘I’m working in 14,000 feet of water depth. It’s already hard enough to understand the bottom of the ocean from a surface ship, and now you want me to go 200 miles above that! This is not what you do to further understand the bottom of the ocean.’”

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But, eventually, after returning to Nova Scotia, Sullivan did put in an application. Speaking to the BBC in June 2020, she remembered what made her do it. Sullivan recalled, “My primary motivation for applying to be an astronaut was – if I somehow beat the odds and actually got chosen – I could get to see the earth from orbit with my own eyes.”

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Sullivan was invited to Houston for an interview in February 1977 but NASA made her – and the other applicants – wait. It wasn’t until early 1978 that she received the call from NASA. She’d been accepted onto the astronaut program. In fact NASA’s 1978 class of astronauts was the very first one to take on women. And almost an aside, Sullivan also gained her doctorate from Dalhousie in 1978.

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Of the 1978 intake of 35 would-be astronauts, six were women, while four of the men were from minority ethnic groups. There was a storm of publicity surrounding this first class of astronauts to be recruited in a decade. Sullivan told Space.com in January 2020, “By the end of our first day, right after we’d been introduced to the public, it became clear to all of us that the simple way to describe our group was 10 interesting people and 25 standard white guys.”

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However, Sullivan had no complaints about how NASA treated their new female recruits. She remembered, “All six of us [women] would say we got a remarkably clear runway. No one had ever seen an astronaut that looked like me, but they had always treated astronauts [with respect].” And that suited Sullivan just fine.

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As Sullivan explained in a 2013 article on the NASA website, “We didn’t want to become ‘the girl astronauts,’ distinct and separate from the guys…All of us had been interested in places that were not highly female, and just wanted to succeed in the environment, at the tasks, and at all the other dimensions of the challenge.” But that’s not to say that there wasn’t the occasional false note.

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Sally Ride, one of the other female astronauts of 1978 who would go on to be the first American woman in space in 1983, has related one particularly bizarre incident. In 2013 she told the NASA website, “The engineers at NASA, in their infinite wisdom, decided that women astronauts would want makeup-so they designed a makeup kit. A makeup kit brought to you by NASA engineers…You can just imagine the discussions amongst the predominantly male engineers about what should go in a makeup kit.”

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In the coming years, Sullivan would undergo all the rigors of astronaut training. Speaking to B&H, she recalled, “It’s the training regimen almost more than space flight that’s going to tax you. It’s a big job, it’s a busy job. So be sure you have a lot of energy and stamina.” After six years of training and exercises, Sullivan finally got her chance to launch into space. Challenger space shuttle mission STS-41G took off from Florida’s Kennedy Space Station on October 5, 1984.

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The flight was the Challenger ship’s sixth, although it was the 13th space shuttle program launch. It was the first such mission to include two women since Ride was also on board, making her the first American woman to travel into space twice. And Sullivan was to gain an American first during the flight. On the penultimate day of the eight-day mission, October 11, Sullivan and her astronaut colleague David Leestma stepped out of the shuttle for a spacewalk.

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That spacewalk gave Sullivan the distinction of being the first American woman to walk in space, and the second of any nationality to do so. The very first woman to spacewalk was the Russian cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya who had achieved this in July 1984, just a few months ahead of Sullivan. Savitskaya had spent over three hours outside of the Salyut 7 space station with another cosmonaut, Vladimir Dzhanibekov.

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It would be almost another six years before Sullivan returned to space, this time aboard the Discovery space shuttle. Mission STS-31 launched from California in April 1990 on a five-day mission. This was a particularly important flight since the astronauts were sharing the shuttle with the Hubble Space Telescope which they successfully deployed.

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Sullivan’s third and final space flight, mission STS-45 came in 1992. In April space shuttle Atlantis took off from the Kennedy Space Center for an nine-day space flight. On this mission, Sullivan had the role of payload commander. That meant she was in charge of an array of scientific equipment aboard Atlantis. The instruments were designed to conduct a range of experiments focusing on Earth’s atmosphere.

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The next year, 1993, it was time for Sullivan to move on from her distinguished 15-year career at NASA. Her three space flights had seen her spend a total of 532 hours in space. Plus, as we’ve seen, she’d become the first American woman ever to walk in space. And Sullivan’s undoubted talents had not gone unnoticed.

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President Bill Clinton now nominated Sullivan for the highly prestigious post of chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Her brief was to concentrate on work associated with the planet’s atmosphere and oceans – a natural extension of her doctorate and her work at NASA. After a spell at NOAA, Sullivan took on the leadership role at the Center of Science and Industry and a senior management position at Ohio State University’s Battelle Center for Mathematics and Science Education Policy.

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A second presidential call came in 2011, this time from Barack Obama, and Sullivan now returned to NOAA as the organization’s deputy administrator. She described her job to Space.com as, “to keep the pulse of the planet, to measure and monitor the things that can help us make those better decisions; and then broker, package and transmit the information to us, as a weather forecast, or to heads of state or to fishermen.”

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So, now approaching her sixties and with a glittering career behind her, it would be reasonable to assume that Sullivan would work on for a few more years before a well-deserved retirement. But that is not the way Kathryn Sullivan has chosen to lead her life. In 2020 a new challenge appeared on the horizon. This time instead of travelling upwards into space, Sullivan would be heading downwards into the deepest depths of the ocean.

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This exciting new challenge was offered to Sullivan by a pioneer named Victor Vescovo, a former naval officer. Vescovo, now a financier of immense wealth, has dedicated the last few years of his life to diving down to the deepest point of every ocean, something no other human has ever achieved. This project was titled the Five Deeps Expedition.

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Vescovo started the Five Deeps project in December 2018 when he descended 27,480 feet to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean’s Puerto Rico Trench. He did this aboard the mini-submarine Limiting Factor. It’s a deep sea vehicle weighing in at just over 13 tons whose titanium hull is built to dive to a maximum depth of 36,000 feet.

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Powered by a 65 kWh battery, Limiting Factor can dive for more than 16 hours on a single mission. The submarine can carry two people, with one acting as pilot, and they’re afforded all-round ocean views through three acrylic-covered portholes. The 15-foot long craft is just over nine feet wide and stands at a little over 12 feet tall.

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After that trip to the depths of the Puerto Rico Trench, the second set of dives came in January and February of 2019. This time, Vescovo was exploring the Southern Ocean and Limiting Factor dived down 24,388 feet to the deepest section of the South Sandwich Trench. It was the first crewed dive into the Trench.

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Three more dives followed in 2019. Limiting Factor descended 23,596 into the Indian Ocean’s Java Trench in April. In May, Vescovo dived to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean’s Mariana Trench. He descended 35,853 feet into the Trench’s deepest part, the Challenger Deep. This was the deepest crewed dive in history into the deepest of the Earth’s oceans.

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Finally, the Five Deeps Expedition was rounded off with a dive to the bottom of the Molloy Deep in the Arctic Ocean, a depth of some 18,200 feet. Vescovo had accomplished his goal, reaching the deepest point of the world’s five principal oceans. And he’d done the whole thing solo. What on earth could he do for an encore?

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Well how about inviting Kathryn Sullivan to accompany him to the deepest point in all the world’s oceans, the Challenger Deep, aboard Limiting Factor? Then Sullivan would not only be the first American woman to take a space walk, she would also be the first woman from anywhere to go to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean’s Mariana Trench. Sounded like a neat idea to Vescovo.

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So the explorer pinged off an email to Sullivan with his surprise proposal. There may be some, perhaps even many, 68-year-olds who would baulk at such a challenging assignment. But Sullivan is not one of them. Admittedly, she did a little background research – who can blame her – but she soon gave an enthusiastic thumbs-up to Vescovo’s proposal.

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And by her account, it was an incredible experience. The dive came in June 2020 and describing it, Sullivan told the BBC, “I mean, it’s just magical that we can go to these places because of the ingenuity and the engineering prowess of these teams of people, we can take our bodies to places that we really have no business being.” Of course, with her space experience, Sullivan already knew all about being in an extremely hostile environment.

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Sullivan continued, pointing out, “And we can do that, essentially, in street clothes. I mean, I ate lunch 31,000ft below the surface of the ocean on Sunday. That’s crazy.” Being back in the news gave Sullivan the chance to promote her fondly held beliefs about the importance of science – and the central part that women have to play in it.

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Talking about her love of science she said, “The stereotype is a very dull person in a lab coat that just knows numbers and just knows principles. But in so many fields where science and technology are at the core of what you’re doing, it’s completely creative.” As for her future plans, Sullivan quipped, “I think I will be exploring until they put me in a little wooden box at some point in the future.”  Let’s just hope that time is many, many years in the future.

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