Women in Transportation History: Kathryn D. Sullivan, Astronaut and Oceanographer

Kathryn Dwyer Sullivan was born in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1951. She earned a B.S. degree in earth sciences from the University of California, Santa Cruz, in 1973 and a Ph.D. in geology from Dalhousie University in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia in 1978.

It was also in 1978 that Sullivan formally became one of six women among a total of 35 individuals to be selected as astronaut candidates in NASA Astronaut Group 8. This was the first NASA group of astronaut candidates to include women.

During her training as an astronaut, Sullivan made history yet again as the first woman to be certified to wear a U.S. Air Force pressure suit. On August 31, 1979, NASA announced that Sullivan and her fellow astronaut candidates had completed their training and evaluation and were now qualified for selection on space crews. Less than two months earlier, Sullivan set an unofficial sustained U.S. aviation altitude record for women while she was on board a NASA WB-57F aircraft. This aircraft, which was operated by NASA pilot Jim Korkowski, reached an altitude of 63,000 feet (19,000 meters) during its four-hour flight.

Sullivan’s first spaceflight occurred in October 1984, when she was a member of the seven-person crew on board Space Shuttle Challenger for the STS-41-G mission. Sally K. Ride likewise took part in this mission, thereby making it the first spaceflight to include two women. Sullivan’s next spaceflight took place in April 1990, when she was part of the five-person crew on board Space Shuttle Discovery for the STS-31 mission. Sullivan’s third and final journey into space was the STS-45 flight of Space Shuttle Atlantis during the spring of 1992. Sullivan left NASA the following year. Altogether, Sullivan had logged 22 days, four hours, and 49 minutes in space.

Sullivan’s achievements to date have also encompassed oceanography. From 2014 to 2017, for example, she served in the U.S. Department of Commerce as the under secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and also the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Sullivan likewise made headlines when she traveled on board the Triton Submarines’ deep-submergence vehicle Limiting Factor to the bottom of the Challenger Deep, which is part of the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific Ocean and the deepest known point in Earth’s oceans. As a result of this expedition, Sullivan became the first woman to visit the Challenger Deep and also the first person to travel to both space and that section of the Mariana Trench.

Sullivan has received several awards to date. These include the NASA Space Flight Medal in 1984, 1990, and 1992; the Haley Space Flight Award (presented by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics) in 1991; and the NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal in 1992. Sullivan was inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame in 2004. In addition, she was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 2016 and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2017. In 2021, Sullivan was appointed to serve on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

Photo Credit: Public Domain

For more information on Kathryn D. Sullivan, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kathryn_D._Sullivan

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