American geologist, oceanographer and former NASA astronaut and US Navy officer Kathy Sullivan holds the records for being the first American woman to walk in space and the first woman in the world to dive to the deepest part of the ocean. As with her exploration of the furthest humanly possible locations, her life has been one of extremes.
Born into a family that encouraged her to follow her passions, she originally intended to be a linguist and work for the foreign service. However, an interest in science and technology led to her joining NASA and later the US Naval Reserve.
Driven by a belief that as nations and individuals we should push the boundaries of knowledge about the world we live in, she stated that she wanted to go to space to “see the Earth from orbit with my own eyes”. Still actively involved in technology and exploration, she has said that she thinks she will be “exploring until they put me in a little wooden box at some point in the future.”
Here are 10 facts about Kathy Sullivan’s extraordinary life.
2. She originally wanted to work in the foreign service
Sullivan graduated from high school in Los Angeles, California, in 1969. She was a natural linguist at school, taking French and German, and decided to follow a career in the foreign service. Due to its excellent Russian language program, Sullivan chose to study at the University of California.
While there she also took classes in marine biology, topology and oceanography, and discovered that she both enjoyed and had a talent for the subjects. She altered her course to take more science subjects.
3. Her job as an astronaut was her first full-time paid job
When Sullivan visited her family for Christmas in 1976, her brother Grant pointed her in the direction of an open call from NASA for a new group of space astronauts. NASA was especially interested in recruiting women. Sullivan applied for the job and was called to a week of rigorous physical and psychological testing and interviews.
Her application was successful, and she was announced as one of six women amongst the 35 members of NASA Astronaut Group 8 in 1978. The group was the first astronaut group to include women, and Sullivan was one of three members of the group for whom being a NASA astronaut was their first full-time paid job.
4. She became the first American woman to walk in space
On 11 October 1984, Sullivan became the first American woman to leave a spacecraft by performing a 3.5 hour spacewalk to demonstrate the feasibility of an orbital refuelling system on a satellite in orbit. While at NASA she became the first woman to be certified to wear a US Air Force pressure suit, and in 1979 she set an unofficial sustained American aviation altitude record for women of 19,000 metres over a four hour flight.
In total, she undertook three spaceflights in the space shuttles Discovery, Challenger and Atlantis, and conducted a number of experiments that studied the earth’s atmosphere. After 532 hours in space and an illustrious career on earth, she retired from NASA in 1993.
5. She joined the US Naval Reserve
In 1988, Sullivan met US Navy oceanographer Andreas Rechnitzer while on an oceanographic research cruise, which piqued her interest in joining the US Navy. Later the same year she joined the US Naval Reserve as a direct commission officer with the rank of lieutenant commander.
In 1990, she assumed command of a small unit of meteorologists and oceanographers deployed to support a base in Guam, and she helped to create space for the usual component responsible for the Western Pacific so that it could concentrate on the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm. She retired from the US Naval Reserve in 2006 with the rank of captain.
6. She is the first woman to dive to the deepest part of the ocean
On 7 June 2020, Sullivan became the first woman to dive to the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, which is the deepest known part of the earth’s seabed at almost 7 miles below the ocean’s surface and 200 miles southwest of Guam. The site was first reached in 1960 by two men and has only been visited a few times since, including by Titanic director James Cameron.
7. She was appointed to a role by Barack Obama
In 2011, former President Barack Obama appointed Sullivan to the role of assistant secretary of commerce for environmental observation and prediction and deputy administrator of NOAA. She later became acting administrator of NOAA in 2013 and acting under secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere. She served in this role until 2017, when former President Donald Trump was elected and took office.
8. She is highly decorated
Sullivan has been awarded numerous awards from NASA including the Outstanding Leadership Medal in 1992 and a Certificate of Appreciation in 1996. Other awards include the Haley Space Flight Award, the Gold Medal of the Society of Woman Geographers, the Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement and the Adler Planetarium Women in Space Science Award.
Sullivan has earned further accolades such as being honoured on the Time 100 and BBC 100 Women lists and added to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She has also been inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame and has been elected to the National Academy of Engineering.
9. She is an author
In 2019, Sullivan released her book Handprints on Hubble: An Astronaut’s Story of Invention. In it, she recounts her experience as part of the team tasked with launching, rescuing, repairing and maintaining the Hubble Space Telescope.
10. She is an advocate for women in STEM
Sullivan has spoken about having a lack of female role models in the fields that she was interested in growing up. Speaking about the male-dominated field of earth sciences, she said “The guys went out to field camps and they dressed all grubby and they never showered and they could swear and be real, rowdy little boys again to their hearts’ content,” while she felt like her presence was viewed as disturbing their fun.
She has spoken multiple times about her hope for improved diversity and female representation in the scientific, technological, engineering and mathematical (STEM) fields.