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One American Woman Has Walked in Space and on the Bottom of the Sea

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This story may shame you. I’m happy just to get out of bed in the morning, you may say. Or, it may inspire you. If she can do all those things, then I can get this done, too, you might think. Either way, this story is almost certain to impress you. It’s the story of Dr. Kathy Sullivan, a woman whose career as a NASA astronaut led her to a record-breaking spacewalk. But the story doesn’t end there. Dr. Sullivan had a whole other career, one that took her to another record-breaking location and in a wholly different direction.

Who Is Dr. Kathy Sullivan?

Kathryn Sullivan was born in Paterson, New Jersey in October 1951. She ultimately graduated with a doctorate in Geology from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada where her research focused on oceanography. She was selected to join NASA’s astronaut program in 1978 and became an astronaut in 1979. Dr. Sullivan flew into space on the Space Shuttle three times, in October 1984, April 1990, and March to April 1992. During her NASA career, she logged over 532 hours in space. Three and one-half of those hours, in October 1984, were particularly special.

Not Just Another Walk

During the October 1984 Mission STS-41G, Sullivan served as a mission specialist on Space Shuttle Challenger. The seven-person crew’s missions were to deploy the Earth Radiation Budget Satellite, conduct scientific observations of Earth, conduct some in-cabin experiments, and demonstrate the refueling of a satellite with the Orbital Refueling System. Sullivan and Commander Leestma were responsible for demonstrating the refueling of the satellite. Does that sound mundane? Hardly, but it may not sound as thrilling as it surely was.

It meant leaving the shuttle. It meant, in the words of NASA, an Extravehicular Activity (EVA). It meant a spacewalk. Dr. Kathryn Sullivan became the very first American woman ever to perform an EVA — a spacewalk — for three and one-half hours in October 1984. Check out this video of Dr. Sullivan talking about that thrill in 2019, the 35th anniversary of the first spacewalk by an American woman. 

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No one would have blamed Dr. Sullivan for resting on her laurels with that accomplishment. But that wasn’t her style. In fact, she returned to space two more times, including with Mission STS-31 in 1990, which launched the Hubble Telescope. 

What Did Sullivan Do for an Encore?

Dr. Sullivan left NASA in 1993 for a relaxing retirement and beaches…No, that’s not what happened! Sullivan did leave NASA in 1993 but she embarked on a second career. It was perhaps tangentially related to beaches, but barely. President Clinton appointed Sullivan as Chief Scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The NOAA studies changes in coasts, oceans, weather, and climate to help manage and conserve coastal and marine ecologies. 

In the decades that followed, Sullivan has held posts such as President of the Centre of Science & Industry, Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, and Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Environmental Observation and Prediction. Sullivan’s career in public service was a celebrated second professional act following her career as an astronaut. But it hardly made headlines — until June 2020, that is. 


@EYOSExpeditions / Twitter

In June 2020, Dr. Kathy Sullivan used a submersible to descend nearly 36,000 feet to the bottom of the ocean at Challenger Deep in the Western Pacific Ocean at the southern end of the Mariana Trench. Challenger Deep is the deepest known point in Earth’s oceans. Thirty-six years after becoming the first American woman to walk in space, Sullivan became the first woman to dive to the deepest point in Earth’s oceans. She accomplished this feat on World Oceans Day. 

There’s no word on what Dr. Sullivan plans to do next. Clearly, though, nothing is out of reach. If I was a really tall mountain, for example, I’d be keeping my eye out for her, that’s for sure. So, what have you done today? And what do you plan on doing next? 

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