Kathy Sullivan, the first American woman to walk in space, has added another “first” to her list of successes. She’s now the first woman to reach Challenger Deep – the deepest point in the sea.
On Sunday, Dr. Sullivan and an underwater explorer named Victor Vescovo descended 35,810 feet (10,915 meters) below the surface of the Pacific Ocean in a submarine, making the 68-year-old ex-astronaut the first woman ever to reach that depth.
Dr. Sullivan has a long history as an explorer. She was among the first women to join NASA as an astronaut. She made three separate trips into space. In October of 1984, she took part in a 3.5 hour space walk, making her the first American woman to take part in activities in space outside of a spacecraft.
But Dr. Sullivan has also been interested in the ocean for a long time. Before she joined NASA, she was in the US Navy, where her job involved studying the ocean.
After she left NASA in 1993, Dr. Sullivan began working for NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) as its chief scientist. NOAA studies both the oceans and the atmosphere.
The goal of Sunday’s submarine dive was the Mariana Trench. Located in the Pacific Ocean, the Mariana Trench is the deepest valley in the ocean floor. And the deepest part of the Mariana Trench is known as Challenger Deep – the deepest place on Earth.
Challenger Deep is nearly seven miles (11 kilometers) below the surface of the ocean. At that depth, there is incredible pressure from the weight of the water above.
Currently, there is only one submarine in the world which can take two people down that far. The submarine is called “Limiting Factor”. It was built for Mr. Vescovo, and designed to be able to safely go down to the Mariana Trench.
Last year, Mr. Vescovo used Limiting Factor and other submarines to visit and map the deepest points in all five of the world’s oceans. He was the first person to have done this. He’s now also the only person to have descended to Challenger Deep three times.
Because it’s so hard to get down to Challenger Deep, before Sunday, only seven people had ever reached it. Dr. Sullivan is the eighth person, and the first woman to reach that depth.
The two spent about an hour and a half at the bottom, taking pictures of the area. Because of the time required to adjust to the changing pressure, it took about four hours for the submarine to come back to the surface.
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After coming up from the bottom of the ocean, Dr. Sullivan and Mr. Vescovo made a phone call – to the International Space Station (ISS). Dr. Sullivan said that she and Mr. Vescovo compared ideas with the astronauts on the ISS about what was similar between their experiences.
Dr. Sullivan said that as an astronaut and as someone who studies the ocean, it was a “once-in-a-lifetime day”.
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