By Kevin Greer
Lakeside Communications Manager
From the deepest points of the ocean to heights above Earth’s atmosphere, Dr. Kathryn Sullivan has made history as a geologist, astronaut and oceanographer. Her modes of transportation have included three space shuttles, a two-person submersible and Air Force One.
As part of Lakeside’s new Keynote Speaker Series this summer, Sullivan will share her many adventures and explorations with Lakesiders at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 5 in Hoover Auditorium.
She will also join a virtual book discussion of her critically acclaimed memoir, Handprints on Hubble, at 7 p.m. Monday, March 6 with hosts Linda and Doug Huber. Pre-registration for this book discussion is free and available at lakesideohio.com/lakesideonline.
Sullivan was born in New Jersey and grew up in Southern California. After earning her bachelor’s degree in earth sciences from the University of California Santa Cruz, she went to graduate school at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
“I wanted to work in the North Atlantic, and Dalhousie had great research groups that were doing that kind of work,” Sullivan said. “Their work was very much the kind of stuff I wanted to be doing.”
Shortly after earning her doctorate, she was selected by NASA as one of its new astronauts in January 1978. It’s rare for someone to get a job at NASA right out of college, so Sullivan, at age 26, didn’t hesitate to accept and moved to Houston to work at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center.
For the first few weeks, Sullivan went through a NASA equivalent to graduate school, with a deep dive into every scientific and technical topic pertaining to spaceflight. She also traveled to other NASA facilities, like the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, and the Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, to get more familiar with the agency.
At the end of the first year, astronauts become eligible for missions. There were others who were waiting in line for a few years to fly but the shuttle wasn’t ready yet. So, Sullivan and her newer colleagues were farmed out into different parts of work associated with getting the shuttle ready.
“I always used the metaphor that it was a bit like getting into a big organization and starting in the mailroom,” Sullivan said. “You rotate around from one assignment to the next.”
Four years later, Sullivan was “overjoyed” when assigned to her first shuttle mission aboard Challenger. However, she’s not sure how she, or anybody, got selected.
“It’s always been a very secretive process,” Sullivan said. “It was our favorite Friday night at the bar guessing game. ‘Why did this person get this flight? Why did I or didn’t I get that flight? There’s a flight coming up, what do you think they’re looking for? Who do you think is a shoo-in for that?’ You never knew what or how the tea leaves had been read.”
Challenger launched Oct. 5, 1984, for a seven-day mission. Sullivan made history by becoming the first American woman to perform a spacewalk. With Commander David Leestma, she performed a 3.5-hour Extravehicular Activity (EVA) to demonstrate the feasibility of actual satellite refueling with hydrazine, a highly explosive and toxic inorganic compound.
Less than six years later, Sullivan was part of a five-day mission aboard Discovery, when crew members deployed the Hubble Space Telescope. They also conducted a variety of middeck experiments and operated a variety of cameras, including both the IMAX in-cabin and cargo bay cameras, for Earth observations from their record-setting altitude of 380 miles. It was also important for the crew to do what Sullivan called “station keeping.” In other words, staying nearby in case Hubble suffered a malfunction that they might be able to help fix.
“That was a really special mission,” Sullivan said. “You just knew Hubble was going to transform our entire understanding of the universe and how it works. It was also special because we were going to go essentially twice as high so that Hubble would have less gravity and drag to contend with.”
Sullivan’s final trip to space was part of NASA’s first Spacelab mission on the shuttle Atlantis. Over 10 days, the crew operated 12 experiments that constituted the ATLAS-1 (Atmospheric Laboratory for Applications and Science) cargo. The crew worked entirely inside the space shuttle cabin controlling all experiments. One big focus was to better understand how the Aurora works. It was the first time an artificial beam of electrons was used to stimulate a man-made auroral discharge.
“The science was fascinating,” Sullivan said. “It was a great crew, and I think the standout for me was just how good it felt to be on a third flight, knowing that I knew how to do this.”
Sullivan logged more than 532 hours in space and doesn’t have a favorite mission because each one was unique. She said the biggest difference was being more relaxed on the second and third missions. The views are something that will always stick with her.
“It’s truly breathtaking,” Sullivan said. “It is awe-inspiring in the real deep and genuine meaning of that phrase. We throw around the words ‘awe’ and ‘awesome’ so often these days it has almost lost its meaning, but that is an awe moment.”
In 1993, Sullivan left NASA to take over as Chief Scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a role nominated by President Bill Clinton. She also served under presidents Ronald Reagan (National Commission on Space), George W. Bush (National Science Board) and Barack Obama (Undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA Administrator). She’s currently a member of President Joe Biden’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.
Every year, the president is briefed about the hurricane season outlook. The location varies, but NOAA persuaded Obama to visit the National Hurricane Center in Miami in 2015. As the briefing concluded, Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker leaned over and told Sullivan she was invited by Obama to fly back with him on Air Force One.
“He authorized me to have the full tour, including the private quarters, the conference room and the flight deck,” Sullivan said. “It was a grand experience.”
In 2019, Handprints on Hubble was released after being persuaded by a friend to write it. However, the Astronaut Hall of Fame member didn’t have it at the top of her list of things to do.
“I suspect every astronaut has countless people telling them that they really need to write their memoir,” Sullivan said. “I really never had been quite convinced that the world needed mine.”
After coming up with the idea of writing about the “hidden figures in the Hubble story,” she got a fellowship at the Smithsonian, giving her access to their archives for background research. Even though she helped deploy the telescope, there were still some things she needed to learn about it. She thought through the flow of the story and came up with a clever title for each chapter, but she still wasn’t sure how to write it.
At one of her lectures, a woman in the audience said she wanted to publish the book. As it turns out, she was Smithsonian’s liaison to MIT Press, a leading university publisher which looks for books that illuminate science and technology through stories from real people. Not only did Sullivan write about her personal experiences during the Hubble deployment, she also praised the work of engineers who have kept the Hubble Space Telescope running for 33 years, when it was initially designed for a 15-year lifespan.
“It’s probably about 1,000 times better now than it was when we dropped it off in 1990,” Sullivan said. “All the astronauts on those crews gladly acknowledged that, but the wider world didn’t know how critical this work was. I felt it was time they got their due.”
Sullivan made history again on June 7, 2020, when she became the first woman to dive into the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the Earth’s oceans at nearly 36,000 feet. It’s located in the western Pacific Ocean, about 200 miles southwest of Guam. Dallas businessman and retired naval officer Victor Vescovo commissioned the building of the submersible, Limiting Factor. He was being consulted by retired Navy captain Don Walsh, who took Trieste down to the Challenger Deep for the first time in 1960. Vescovo went to Challenger Deep in 2019 and was looking for a scientist to join him for his next dive. Walsh suggested a longtime friend — Dr. Kathryn Sullivan.
“Victor emailed me utterly out of the blue,” Sullivan said. “I followed his exploits in 2019 with considerable interest, but I didn’t know the man.”
Sullivan knew there was a long day ahead for the dive. It takes four hours one way to reach the deep destination, and the plan was to spend four hours at the bottom.
“I had to sit very still for a long time,” Sullivan said. “It’s like moving a big briefcase through the water, so it’s not super-fast.”
Vescovo’s main goal was to make a more accurate measurement of the depth of the Challenger Deep. Precise depth measurement is something NOAA does, so the scientific contribution Sullivan brought to the table was connecting NOAA’s top experts with Vescovo’s team. Sullivan described the ocean floor in the trench as a pale tan silky sediment with very little undulation topography to it. It was also nubbly due to variations of bristle worms and other invertebrates that live in the upper couple inches of the mud on the bottom. They didn’t see anything swimming or moving through the water.
“We were a couple miles deeper than things like squid, octopus, fish or whales have been seen,” Sullivan said. “It’s a very food-starved environment and not a place big creatures want to live.”
In between NOAA stints, she spent 10 years as President and CEO of the Center of Science and Industry (COSI) in Columbus, where she currently resides, and five years as the first Director of the Battelle Center for Mathematics and Science Education Policy at The Ohio State University. She has received numerous medals from NASA and a long list of other awards and honorary degrees. She was inducted into the Ohio Veteran’s Hall of Fame (2001) and Ohio Women’s Hall of Fame (2002).
Sullivan will be making her first trip to Lakeside, and she’s looking forward to sharing her story with the community.
“It seems no one ever gets tired of hearing about what it’s like to live in space” Sullivan said. “It’s always easy to dazzle people because astronauts are the only people on the planet that if they offer to show you their vacation pictures people say ‘yes’ eagerly.”