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Former Astronaut Becomes First Person To Visit Both Space And Challenger Deep

Kathy Sullivan has no shortage of spirit for adventure and boldly going where at least very few have gone before. Even at 68, Sullivan isn't showing signs of slowing down, either.

In fact, the former astronaut has just broken new ground - or new ocean, if you prefer. She's already among the 550-odd select few who have visited space. Now, she's one of just eight people to visit the deepest part of the ocean, Challenger Deep - and she's both the first woman to do so, and the first person ever to visit both Challenger Deep and space.

It's not even her first time being the first to do something.


In 1984, Kathy Sullivan took a small step that proved to be a giant achievement, becoming the first American woman to spacewalk. As part of the crew of a mission aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger, she performed a 3.5 hour spacewalk along with fellow astronaut David C. Leestma as they operated a system designed to re-fuel satellites in orbit.

In all, Sullivan logged 532 hours in space aboard three different shuttle missions in her career, including the 1990 mission that deployed the Hubble Space Telescope.

After retiring from her career above the clouds, Sullivan turned her attention back to her first love, the oceans.


Sullivan, a US Navy captain, spent several years in a variety of roles with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, rising all the way up to the role of administrator from 2013 to 2017.

But the spirit of adventure has always driven her, and as she told CNN, when she received an invitation to travel to Challenger Deep, she had to tag along.

"I know (Challenger Deep) as a bathymetric feature on a chart, a tectonic feature, and a seismic feature ... but that's all data-based understanding. To see it in person -- it makes all the difference in the world," she said.

"No self-respecting marine biologist would be able to pass up an invitation!"

Challenger Deep is a much different environment than outer space.

It's one of the least understood and researched areas on the planet precisely because it's so hard to reach. And as Sullivan noted, there are distinct differences about how you get to each destination.

"Two things are really distinctly different in the experience of going out into space or going down into the ocean," Sullivan told CNN. "One is energy intensity. I mean, you're basically riding a bomb when you strap onto a rocket and launch off the planet. It's hugely energetic, loud, noisy, lots of acceleration."

The trip to the deepest part of the ocean, however, felt more like a "magic elevator ride" and "kind of like a long-haul flight in Economy or Premium Economy."

Joining Sullivan on her Challenger Deep mission was adventurer and scientist Victor Vescovo.

Among Vescovo's achievements, he has set foot on both poles, the highest peaks on every continent, and now has visited the deepest part of the ocean. Sullivan described the four-hour descent to Challenger Deep with Vescovo as "very, very serene. You're not in some clumsy spacesuit; you can basically be in street clothes if you wanted to. And it's this slow, smooth, steady descent."

However, the temperature also dropped to 22 degrees F (-5 C) inside, while outside the submersible, the pressures reached an insane 16,000 pounds per square inch, the equivalent of 291 jumbo jets.

Although they are different places, Sullivan said that the experience of visiting Challenger Deep put her in mind of the Moon landings.

"I felt like I was flying over a moonscape as we went along the bottom," she told CNN. "I think I was probably seeing in my mind's eye or remembering some of the Apollo images from those missions, flying over this austere landscape. But this amazing moonscape is at the very bottom of our ocean on my home planet."

Amazingly, the submersible the pair took to the bottom is headed right back there in short order - it's scheduled to make the trip an astounding three times in 10 days.

h/t: CNN

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