Limitless: former astronaut Kathy Sullivan explores the depths of our oceans
Elinor Jones outlines the amazing achievements of astronaut Kathy Sullivan, and what these could mean for the future of exploration
In an endeavour many of us can only aspire to accomplish in our wildest dreams, Dr Kathy Sullivan has recently become the first person to have reached both the heights of space and the depths of the deepest point in our oceans. Having endured extremes we usually hear about in sci-fi films, Sullivan has long been a record-breaker, being the first American woman in space and the first female to travel to the depths of 35,810-feet.
Sullivan has long been a record-breaker, being the first American woman in space and the first female to travel to the depths of 35,810-feet
Over forty years since Dr Sullivan joined the first group of female astronauts at NASA, her long-standing fascination with the oceans led her to venture to the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, 200 miles off Guam. With her experience in space, Sullivan has showcased the similarities between the extreme environments she has put herself through, including the intense pressure placed on her body, and the immense strength of character needed to spend hours on end with only one or two others for company. The Limiting Factor submersible took Sullivan and pilot Victor Vescovo to the Challenger Deep – a region characterised by darkness, extreme pressures and freezing temperatures.
In this privately funded mission investigating a depth at which only simple lifeforms can persist, Sullivan and Vescovo enabled a call between the International Space Station and the Limiting Factor, in what has been called an ‘outer space – inner space communication’. Exhibiting the span of human endeavour, this discussion has been hailed as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to share experiences of exploration, including surviving in confined spaces and having experiments performed onboard.
Sullivan and Vescovo enabled a call between the International Space Station and the Limiting Factor
Not only does the expedition highlight the potential for astronauts to explore other extreme, unknown environments, but also recent weeks have seen the scope for privately funded exploration with Elon Musk’s SpaceX highlighting the potential to transform scientific understanding and technology.
We are at an interesting cross-roads in exploration with the prospect of more frequent visits to space and remote environments on Earth. Through Sullivan’s experience of extreme situations we have learnt the importance of understanding the impact of such environments on those who travel there, if we are to push forward in our pursuit of greater information about the currently unknown.