Alumna Kathy Sullivan embarks on another first, this time to the ocean’s depths

The first American woman to walk in space, Sullivan is now aiming to be the first woman to visit the deepest spot in the oceans

Kathryn Sullivan
Kathryn Sullivan (Photo by Stephen Voss for Time)

UCSC alumna Kathryn Sullivan, a former astronaut who was the first American woman to walk in space and later served as the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), is poised to become the first woman and only the fifth person in history to descend to the deepest spot in the world’s oceans, the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, seven miles below the surface of the Pacific Ocean.

Sullivan will make her descent in the Limiting Factor, a two-person submersible designed and built by Triton Submarines, as part of Caladan Oceanic’s Ring of Fire Expedition led by investor and explorer Victor Vescovo, who will pilot the submersible.

Sullivan’s Challenger Deep dive is currently scheduled for June 7. She is joining the expedition in Guam, where the team is scheduled to set sail on the deep submergence support vessel Pressure Drop on June 5. Sullivan will be posting updates on her blog at

Plans for the expedition include a series of dives in the Mariana Trench, where the team hopes to observe volcanic vents, identify new species, and conduct extensive mapping of the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone at the request of NOAA.

Sullivan graduated from UCSC in 1973 with a bachelor's degree in Earth sciences. Gary Griggs, a distinguished professor of Earth and planetary sciences whose oceanography class sparked Sullivan’s interest in science, called her achievements inspirational.

If you have one student like Kathy Sullivan in your entire teaching career, you would be fortunate,” Griggs said. “Kathy is an extraordinary person who has achieved remarkable things that the rest of us may only dream about—these accomplishments and an astonishing career from a young woman who came to UCSC as a freshman determined to major in languages until she discovered the oceans.”

Sullivan received UCSC’s Alumni Achievement Award in 1984, and the atrium in the Earth and Marine Sciences Building was named in her honor in 2006.

An accomplished oceanographer, Sullivan earned a Ph.D. in geology at Dalhousie University in Canada. As a member of the NASA astronaut corps, she became the first U.S. woman to walk in space in 1984. Six years later, she joined fellow UCSC grad Steven Hawley (Ph.D., astronomy and astrophysics, '77) on the shuttle mission that deployed the Hubble Space Telescope. She flew on three shuttle missions during her 15-year tenure as an astronaut.

Sullivan was appointed NOAA's chief scientist in 1993, later served a decade as president and CEO of the Center of Science and Industry in Columbus, Ohio, and was the inaugural director of the Battelle Center for Mathematics and Science Education Policy at Ohio State University. She served as NOAA administrator from 2014 to 2017.

For more information about the expedition, visit and follow the team on Twitter @CaladanOceanic, Instagram @CaladanOceanic, and Facebook @CaladanOceanic for ongoing updates.