Astronaut’s historic journey to the deep

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byeIt has been 36 years since Kathy Sullivan celebrated being on top of the world after becoming the first American woman to walk in space.

Yesterday she was celebrating again after becoming the first female explorer to also reach the bottom of it, having descended 6.8 miles in a “magic ball” to the Pacific underworld of Challenger Deep – on World Oceans Day.

“As we glided along the ocean floor it reminded me of video clips from astronauts flying over the lunar surface,” Dr Sullivan, 68, told The Times. “ ‘Moonscape’ was the word that kept coming back to me — like I was seeing the moon right here on our own planet.”

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Kathy Sullivan was the first American woman to walk in space. Picture: NASA

Dr Sullivan, a geologist and oceanographer, served on three space shuttle missions during her 15-year career as a Nasa astronaut and became the first female spacewalker in 1984. She orbited Earth 356 times, travelling 13.8 million km (8.6 million miles).

“If you’re looking for that absolutely glorious picture postcard view, space wins it every time. But if you want to be dazzled beyond anything you can imagine about the variety and abundance of life on Earth, go into the sea,” she said.

Speaking from the surface ship Pressure Drop, in the western Pacific, Dr Sullivan said: “It’s just fascinating to get to see that extraordinary place I’ve been reading about since my late teens and, as an engineer, to have been in a remarkable craft whose build is every bit as fascinating and extraordinary.”

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Her voyage to the deepest known point on Earth was piloted by Victor Vescovo, 54, a retired US Navy Reserve commander, and facilitated by a $50 million deep-sea expedition system that comprises Pressure Drop, a submersible named Limiting Factor, and a fleet of robotic landers. The submersible, built by Florida’s Triton Submarines, withstood water pressure equivalent to an eight-tonne weight being placed on a human fingernail as it descended into the hadal zone – named after Hades, the Greek god of the underworld.

“There’s a lot of things that can go wrong . . . There’s a reason that fewer people have gone to the bottom of the ocean than walked on the moon,” said Cdr Vescovo, founder of the expedition company Caladan Oceanic, who is the first person to reach the deepest points of all five oceans.

“It is the most remote and hostile place on the earth and it’s a product of human ingenuity that we can go to these places nature doesn’t mean us to go,” he said.

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Back on the surface the pair celebrated by calling the three American astronauts aboard the International Space Station, two of whom arrived last week on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, the world’s first commercial crewed spaceliner.

“They are two groups of humans using cutting edge technology to explore the outer edges of our world. It highlighted the vast span of human endeavour while at the same time linking us close together as fellow explorers,” said Rob McCallum, of EYOS Expeditions, who coordinated the call.

Challenger Deep, in the Mariana Trench, was first visited in 1960 by Don Walsh, a US navy lieutenant, and Jacques Piccard, a Swiss oceanographer, in a bathyscaphe or free-diving self-propelled deep-sea submersible, USS Trieste.

Aboard Limiting Factor, it was a four-hour descent – “very peaceful, very little sense of motion,” said Cdr Vescovo – with a chance to eat tuna sandwiches, crisps and apple strudel before reaching the sea floor.

“We shook hands, I congratulated her on being the first woman at the bottom of the ocean, then we set off looking for lifeforms,” Cdr Vescovo said.

Dr Sullivan said: “It’s like being in a little magic ball . . . Just like being outside in a spacesuit for the first time, it turns everything you know about geography upside down and the way you’ve always thought about life on Earth is blown away.”

Just as she inspired others by her feats in space, she hopes her ocean exploration will compel new generations to appreciate Earth’s undersea worlds. “I hope that spark is ignited within them of intrigue and curiosity, about the ingenuity of engineering, of science, of the mystery of the ocean . . . and that it would inspire another young Kathy Sullivan, who as a teenager interested in the ocean would never have imagined being the first woman to reach the bottom of it.”

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