Kathy Sullivan and the Four Challengers

As above, so below - an American hero conquers the stars and the seas!

Amid all the recent news of pandemic and social unrest, you might've recently stumbled upon a pretty cool article about former astronaut Kathy Sullivan. After making history 36 years ago as the first American woman to perform a spacewalk, Sullivan just became the first woman to ever reach Challenger Deep, the deepest point in the ocean! On June 9, she and pilot Victor Vescovo descended via submersible over 35,000 ft below the surface in the Mariana Trench, where they observed the ocean floor and even had a brief phone call with the astronauts on the ISS passing overhead! I hope when I'm 68, I still have the energy just to play a round of golf, much less explore the high seas

"As a hybrid oceanographer and astronaut, this was an extraordinary day, a once in a lifetime day!"

Born in Paterson, NJ, Sullivan earned a Ph.D. in Geology and served in the US Naval Reserve before being selected as part of NASA's 1978 astronaut class, the first to include women. On her maiden spaceflight, STS-41G in 1984, Sullivan and fellow mission specialist David Leestma performed a 3 hour EVA to demonstrate the Orbital Refueling System and show that satellites could be refueled mid-orbit. She would go on to fly two more Shuttle missions, notably launching the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990, before retiring from the astronaut corps in 1993

Post-NASA, Sullivan held many prestigious scientific roles, eventually rising to become the NOAA Administrator under President Obama. She now serves as the Charles Lindbergh Chair of Aerospace History at the Smithsonian Institution. What a resume!

The best view of the ocean a person could ever dream of

In researching Kathy Sullivan, I stumbled across a fascinating coincidence in naming: our famous spacewalking oceanographer owes both her life's great voyages to a single British ship: the HMS Challenger. Not only did this Royal Navy corvette discover Challenger Deep in 1875, it's also the namesake of Space Shuttle Challenger, the shuttle Sullivan flew on her maiden spaceflight and historic spacewalk!

Here she is floating outside Space Shuttle Challenger in 1984!

The famous "Challenger Expedition" of 1872-1876 was the first-ever global oceanography expedition, with scientific objectives such as analyzing the temperature, circulation, light penetration, chemical composition, and distribution of organic life across the great ocean basins. The expedition ultimately traveled 81,000 miles and revealed over 4,000 undiscovered species, establishing oceanography as a legitimate academic discipline rather than a hodgepodge of guesswork. John Murray, the scientist widely considered today to be the father of oceanography, described the final report of the Challenger Expedition as "the greatest advance in the knowledge of our planet since the celebrated discoveries of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries"

There have been 8 Royal Navy ships in history named HMS Challenger; the one that sailed the Challenger Expedition was the 5th

So that accounts for three Challengers thus far: the Royal Navy ship, the Space Shuttle, and Challenger Deep. But hey, where's the fourth?! While not directly connected to Kathy Sullivan (sorry to disappoint!) the Lunar Module of Apollo 17 was also named after the HMS Challenger. And while you won't find any deep blue oceans on the moon, Apollo 17 was the only moon landing to bring an actual geologist to the lunar surface, Harrison Schmitt. Too bad NASA didn't give Apollo 17 the landing site Apollo 12 had, the "Ocean of Storms." Then the four Challengers would truly have been the masters of the sea

Astronaut-geologist Harrison Schmitt in front of Apollo 17 Lunar Module Challenger at Taurus-Littrow on the Moon in 1972

For more on the Challenger Expedition, I recommend this article. The fact that the deepest part of the ocean was discovered during the first ever oceanic survey is truly serendipity!


  1. Replies
    1. Once a beast always a beast. Buzz Aldrin reached the South Pole at the age of 86