First US Female Spacewalker Becomes First Woman to Dive 36,000ft to Earth’s Lowest Point

June 12, 2020 Updated: June 28, 2020

America’s first female spacewalker has made history yet again, this time by becoming the first woman to dive to the lowest known point on Earth, known as Challenger Deep, in a submersible expedition vehicle.

Former NASA astronaut and oceanographer Kathryn Sullivan, 68, returned from Challenger Deep, located in the western Pacific, on June 7. She and her pilot, ex-Naval officer Victor Vescovo, dove almost 36,000 feet into the Pacific Ocean’s Mariana Trench off the coast of the Philippines in the submersible DSV Limiting Factor. The dive was organized by EYOS Expeditions.

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Dr. Kathy Sullivan and Victor Vescovo during a Mariana Trench dive. (Courtesy of Enrique Alvarez)

“This is the most exclusive destination on Earth,” EYOS’s expedition leader Rob McCallum said in a press release. “More people have been to the moon than to the bottom of the ocean.”

After making a safe return to Limiting Factor’s docking ship, DSSV Pressure Drop, Sullivan and Vescovo made a momentous phone call to the International Space Station (ISS) to mark the occasion.

“As a hybrid oceanographer and astronaut this was an extraordinary day, a once-in-a-lifetime day, seeing the moonscape of the Challenger Deep and then comparing notes with my colleagues on the ISS about our remarkable reusable inner-space, outer-spacecraft,” Sullivan said, as EYOS reported on a Facebook post.

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(Kmusser/CC BY-SA 3.0)

“We made some more history today,” added her colleague Vescovo, a veteran expeditioner who has scaled Mount Everest and is the fourth person ever to reach Challenger Deep. “It was a pleasure to have Kathy along, both as an oceanographer during the dive and then as an astronaut to talk to the ISS.”

According to EYOS, the ISS is currently in low Earth orbit, maintaining an altitude of 254 miles, while Limiting Factor operates at a depth of almost 7 miles below sea level. Sullivan and Vescovo spent roughly an hour and a half at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, The New York Times reported, before making their four-hour ascent back to the surface.

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Limiting Factor deep-sea submersible vehicle attended to by surface crew (Courtesy of Enrique Alvarez)

Sullivan is the first woman and the eighth person overall to reach the bottom of the trench, succeeding Don Walsh and Jacques Picard in 1960 and “Titanic” film director James Cameron in 2012. Limiting Factor is the first vehicle in history that has repeatedly made the trip.

Challenger Deep is characterized by a blanket of darkness, extreme atmospheric pressure, and low temperatures, reports the Independent. Only basic microorganisms are able to survive its largely inhospitable environment.

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Dr. Kathy Sullivan and Victor Vescovo. (Courtesy of Enrique Alvarez)
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Dr. Kathy Sullivan and Victor Vescovo examine underwater survey data. (Courtesy of Enrique Alvarez)
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Dr. Kathy Sullivan, Victor Vescovo and crew of DSSV Pressure Drop (Courtesy of Enrique Alvarez)

From outer space to the bottom of the ocean floor, Sullivan’s story began almost seven decades ago.

Born in New Jersey on Oct. 3, 1951, she became a NASA astronaut in 1979. A veteran of three space shuttle flights, she became the first American woman to walk in space five years after her admission into the space administration.

Sullivan was also part of a team that launched, rescued, repaired, and maintained the Hubble Space Telescope. She penned a book about her experience, “Handprints on Hubble,” in 2019.

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Dr. Kathy Sullivan (Courtesy of Enrique Alvarez)

In 2004, Sullivan became an inductee into the Astronaut Hall of Fame.

After Sullivan’s recent underwater feat, Tim Shank, a biologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, hailed her as a leader in the field of oceanography. “I’m thrilled to hear that she was in [Limiting Factor],” he told The New York Times. “Anytime we can reach such extreme places on Earth to learn about them, it’s a major event.”

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