Skywalker and Depthdiver


The Dr. Seuss book Oh, the Places You’ll Go! is a fairly common graduation gift and for some people it is prophetic. If the book, published in 1990, had been around in the 1960s you might have been a true Nostradamus had you given a copy to Kathryn Sullivan.

A couple of weeks ago she created an exclusive society for herself. In the Space and Ocean Club, plebians need not apply.

In 1984, Sullivan was the first woman from the United States to walk in space. In 2020, she became the first woman to reach Challenger Deep, the deepest known point in the world. She is the only person to achieve both feats.

Kathy Sullivan with her NASA uniform

Born in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1951, Sullivan studied earth sciences in college and received a doctorate in geology in 1978. She studied the ocean floors, which presaged her later-life exploit, but seemed to indicate her career might start in the depths instead of the heavens.

Instead, shortly after her Ph.D. studies finished, NASA selected her to be part of the first astronaut groups to include women. In 1984, she blasted off in the Space Shuttle Challenger. During the mission, she participated in extra-vehicular activity, otherwise known as a spacewalk. She was the first American woman to move outside a craft, just missing the world’s first female spacewalk by a matter of months.

With her status as a space legend already established, Sullivan made further history in 1990. On Space Shuttle Discovery she was part of the crew that deployed the Hubble Space Telescope. All told, she visited space three times and logged 532 hours away from Mother Earth.

Kathy Sullivan's historic space walk

For those of us with Ohio ties, Sullivan’s post-NASA career is especially gratifying.

She retired from space-faring in 1993. Sullivan became the chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Then, in 1996, she assumed the position of CEO at COSI in Columbus. The Center of Science and Industry is a renowned museum and research facility with strong ties to education and just down the road from The Mountains Are Calling Headquarters. From 2006 until 2011 she was director of Ohio State University’s Battelle Center for Mathematics and Science Education Policy.

In 2004, President George W. Bush appointed her to the National Science Board. In 2011, President Barack Obama tapped her to serve as the Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Environmental Observation and Prediction, as well as Deputy Administrator for NOAA. In 2013 she became Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and the head honcho of NOAA.

That’s quite the curriculum vitae.

Sullivan gazes at earth in 1984 - must be quite a sight!

But her resume wasn’t completely written yet. When you’re Kathy Sullivan, you don’t exactly stop ruling the world.

In the past half month, Sullivan returned to her roots, metaphorically, trading in the vast of space for the murky bottoms of the seafloor. 

Under a dozen people have probed the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench of the Pacific Ocean. Her voyage to the bottom of the earth was a first for women. The double of space and the trench is a first for humanity. Few people deserve the term “trailblazer” more than Sullivan.

Sullivan became the first woman to reach the ocean's deepest point

Did I mention she hit Challenger Deep at age 68? I’m about half her age and have trouble reaching the bottom of my body. 

In 2004, Sullivan was inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame. It’s probably time to just induct her into the Human Being Hall of Fame.

Further Reading and Exploration

Handprints on Hubble: An Astronaut’s Story of Invention – by Kathy Sullivan (e-book version)

Kathryn Sullivan – NASA Biography

To the Stars!: The First American Woman to Walk in Space – by Carmella Van Vleet and Kathy Sullivan, illustrated by Nicole Wong (e-book version)

Deepest Part of The Oceans – Documentary by Advexon Science Network

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