NASA Astronaut and Oceanographer Dr Kathryn D. (Kathy) Sullivan has set records up high and has now set another one down low, by becoming the first woman to reach the deepest known point in the ocean.
On June 7, the veteran of three space shuttle flights journeyed down around 10,915 meters (35,810 feet) to Challenger Deep, a spot on the Earth’s seabed situated at the southern end of the Mariana Trench in the Western Pacific Ocean. Her vehicle was the submersible Limiting Factor – the creation of explorer, private equity investor, and retired US navy officer Victor Vescovo that was brought to life by Triton Submarines.
“Victor invited me to join the expedition for the purpose of diving with him in the Limiting Factor submersible down to the Challenger Deep, the deepest place on the planet,” Dr Sullivan told IFLScience in an interview. “That was a natural and easy decision for me because I know the quality of engineering and technology that Victor and the Triton submersible team has built into the submarine.”
As the eighth person in history to ever reach this depth, Sullivan, who became the first American woman to walk in space on October 11, 1984, is now the only person in the world to have ever experienced both extremes. However, the rides to each one were poles apart, according to Sullivan.
“If your destination is low Earth orbit, getting to your destination amounts to riding a bomb. It's very intense energy in a very short period of time; thousands, [even] millions of pounds of thrust in eight and a half minutes,” Sullivan explained. “Getting to the bottom of the Marianas Trench is four hours, long and graceful, gentle and serene…. It will remind you more of a long airline flight than anything really hyper-dramatic, except you end up at a very exotic destination.”
When Sullivan and Pilot Vescovo, who last year dove the same submarine to the deepest point in each of the world's oceans, reached their destination, they had planned to spend a further four hours rendezvousing with scientific instruments to refine Challenger Deep’s depth and collect some rocks to examine above the surface. Electrical system problems forced the duo to re-emerge after an hour and a half, but this did not inhibit Sullivan from taking in her surroundings.
“I spent every moment gazing out of those [viewports] and squinting and trying to see,” Sullivan recalled. “We were one to two meters off the bottom, and the life that exists at these very, very deep depths tends to be exquisitely adapted to these harsh environments… it's not abundant life and it tends to not be the large life forms… because there's not a lot of food supply.”
“But it felt like flying over a moonscape to me, I mean, that's what it reminded me of,” Sullivan continued. “I kept spotting features and colors and shadows that told me that there are actually organisms living there, which of course, is not true on the moon… I'll have to keep probing to satisfy my curiosity about what these creatures were that I think I was seeing.”
Sullivan is no stranger to the sea. A former administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) with a PhD in Geology/Oceanography, Sullivan had always aspired to reach the deep-sea floor, but when the opportunity to travel in a different direction came up she couldn’t pass it up.
“I think I had looked at every single picture of the Earth every astronaut had ever taken as I was growing up, and they all fascinated me,” Sullivan said. “But, I mean, we all know this personally, there's a difference between looking at your friend's vacation pictures from the Grand Canyon and being at the Grand Canyon yourself… When NASA opened the door to select scientists and engineers to fly the space shuttle, that to me meant you could shift from looking at astronaut's pictures of the Earth to seeing it yourself.”
When Sullivan and Vescovo re-surfaced, they were greeted with a call from the International Space Station (ISS) orbiting 400 kilometers (250 miles) above, which not only connected Sullivan’s own achievements but also highlighted the recent feats of re-usable vessels in exploration.
“The time gap between the first submersible to the Challenger Deep and the second was 52 years… and now here on this expedition we will do it three times in 10 days,” Sullivan said. “That's an extraordinary leap forward in the reliability and reusability of the submersible, Limiting Factor, and the SpaceX Dragon capsule that took Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken up to the space station is the first flight of a similar leap forward in commercially produced…reliable, reusable craft.”
Co-ordinated by EYOS expeditions, the “Ring of Fire” expedition, which Sullivan was involved in, will continue until July this year, showcasing Limiting Factor’s engineering prowess and advancing the scientific research of this deep pocket of the world.