Not content with her adventures in space, Kathy Sullivan has now explored the extreme depths of the Pacific Ocean. Bryan Appleyard meets the pioneering frontierswoman.
On July 17, 1984, the Soviet Union sent Svetlana Savitskaya into space. They did this because Nasa, rather foolishly, had announced that it was going to have a woman walk in space later that year. That woman was Kathy Sullivan and on October 11, 1984, three months after Savitskaya, she became the second woman to walk in space.
"The United States space programme always announces its intentions well in advance," Sullivan tells me. "The Soviet programme never did."
Sullivan is 68, stern, precise and full of reasoned judgments. In fact she is so focused, so clear, so determined that, for the first time in a while, I feel intimidated by an interviewee.
And it's not as if she's just gone up in orbit a few times. She has also gone the other way, for her focus turned from the stars to the seas — earlier this year she piloted a submersible into Challenger Deep in the Pacific. It's almost 36,000ft down in the Mariana Trench, the deepest known point in the Earth's oceans. Can't she stop herself?
"I have studied the seafloor since my early twenties," she says. "I've always been fascinated by what else is down there that we don't know. The chance to see such a unique environment with my own eyes after so many years of study was just something I couldn't pass up."
She went down in the only operational vehicle able to carry humans to such an extreme depth and, this time, she was the first woman to do it. The submersible, Limiting Factor, is named after a spaceship in a sci-fi novel by Iain Banks. The developer of the sub, a rich guy called Victor Vescovo, is fond of Banks's books. In this case the limiting factor was the pressure: at just under 36,000ft (10,972 metres), the vessel had to withstand 16,000 pounds per square inch (psi). "That gives every molecule of seawater a lot of help as it tries to get in your cables, your compartments or your batteries."
It also gives every molecule a chance of killing you by crushing you into pretty much nothing — the 3.5in titanium alloy hull of the Limiting Factor is all that protects you. Which brings me to the subject of fear. Does Sullivan have any? No, basically. She has been an adventurer since childhood and early on learnt to push fear to the back of her mind.
"My first awareness of my ability to focus on what's at hand comes from some undergraduate geology field experiences where, for various reasons, you get into some crazy place up the side of a mountain. That's where I realised I have the ability to say, look, your best shot at getting through this is to put all your attention on what you need to do next. You can be scared later."
She adds that you have to think about why you are doing this, what the value is to you when you set it against the risk — "that equation's got to make sense, just to you". There is a sense of destiny in this, I suggest — you are here now, you must do what you must do. But she's not having that.
"I would disconnect it from the word 'destiny'. That implies some higher, more highfalutin sense of purpose." For Sullivan there is logic and equations and processes. You can see why she made a great astronaut. You can see why she relished the chance to sink almost 11.5km beneath the waves in a tin can.
She tells me about the "critters" — a lovely Americanism — that somehow survive at the very bottom of the Pacific Ocean, primarily by equalising the pressure inside and outside their bodies. And from this comes an uncharacteristic moment of poetry. She imagines the submarine from the eyes of the critters. To them it must have seemed like an alien lander. Ahead of her mission, instrument packages had been dropped into Challenger Deep and Limiting Factor's first job was to find one.
"You can only see within the sphere that your lights illuminate," she says. "Everything beyond that is just looming up out of the dark. And so there was this really striking moment where a lander package looms up as if it was a planetary probe that some other race had deposited on Earth before we arrived. At the bottom, it struck me most of all like a moonscape. That was the word that kept coming to my mind as I looked out the porthole."
So that you can learn to be like Sullivan, she has a book out: Handprints on Hubble: An Astronaut's Story of Invention. She was part of the crew of the space shuttle Discovery that launched the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990.
"Team Hubble is a label of extreme pride," she says. "There was such clarity and fervency of commitment to purpose."
Even the fact that, once in Earth's orbit, a slightly misshapen mirror meant it returned blurred pictures became an occasion for heroism. It was corrected on a subsequent mission of breathtaking courage and technical ingenuity. Hubble's astounding pictures have now flooded global culture and transformed astronomy. Most thrillingly, it has revealed detailed information about the atmosphere of exoplanets — planets beyond our solar system — and revived speculation about life elsewhere in the cosmos.
Sullivan's book is, as you would expect, a little emotionally understated, but there are gulp-worthy moments. In 1992, before her last space flight, she went for a walk on a beach with her father. "Though it was never said aloud, we both knew this was our 'just in case' walk, the moments, words and hugs he would cling to if his baby girl never came back," she writes. Her father gave her a small bag containing a huge pill, "the 'just in case' tranquilliser he had requested from my flight surgeons". If death was approaching, she could be pharmaceutically lulled into acceptance.
Mainly, though, the book is an explanation of that oft-used phrase "space is hard". Sullivan is fanatical about engineering detail. Say, for example, you want an astronaut on a spacewalk to screw or unscrew a bolt. Simple, you might think, but in the vacuum of space it may well be the astronaut who starts spinning rather than the bolt. How they overcame this problem becomes an important subplot.
The intensity of every moment in space is intimidating, even just to read about. On her first spacewalk with fellow astronaut Dave Leestma in 1984, they just got outside the shuttle and started work as if oblivious to where they were.
"Dave and I were so grooved on a cadence, you know, we just went out and, you know, tickety-boo, tickety-boo. You're manoeuvring with your hands, so usually all you have in front of you is a faceful of spaceship."
The commander, Bob Crippen, had to tell them to stop their work momentarily to "look at the Earth and appreciate where you are".
"He made us stop for a moment. So we took a moment to turn round at the very beginning of the spacewalk. I'm glad we did because we really could have just gone right through the whole thing and gotten back in the airlock and said, well, that was just another great training session."
She describes the moment in her book: "A burst of clashing thoughts flashed through my mind. I was in this absolutely extraordinary place, keenly aware of how deadly the environment outside my suit was, yet being there seemed perfectly natural, and I felt utterly comfortable."
Sullivan was born in New Jersey in 1951. Her father was an aerospace engineer and her mother stayed at home. "She had dreams of going to one of the Ivy League women's colleges," Sullivan says. "I probably get all of my geopolitics, sociology and world affairs interests from her. And if she had been born when I was born, she might very well have ended up in the State Department at a senior diplomatic level."
Sullivan was five years old when she first signalled her engineering intent. She became obsessed with a toy called a pom-pom gun, a moving model of battleship anti-aircraft guns. Her teacher took to calling her a "gun moll".
"I didn't know what that meant, but I could tell it was bad. But, interestingly, right away the next thought in my mind was not, oh, I've done something wrong, it was, she doesn't understand. She thinks it's about the guns. It's about how they work, it's about how interesting they are."
When she was six the family moved to Los Angeles and she soon realised she wanted an "adventurous, geographical exploration life". She was good at languages, so that seemed to be a useful way to see the world. "At high school I knew I had to find a way to get someone to buy the airline tickets," she says.
Beyond the two dimensions of the surface of the Earth, her imagination began to take her down into the sea and, in the background at first, up into space. She became a geologist and an oceanographer, serving as a captain in the US Naval Reserve. But in 1978 she swerved into space as part of the first Nasa intake of female astronauts. There were six of them and it was a big media event. How did she take to the spotlight? She shrugs.
"It was just the reality," she says. "You have to expect that you're always on. We know this from countless other people in public lives. You have one or two too many beers one evening and knock over somebody's mailbox on the way home. That probably happens to hundreds of people a week across the United States. But if it happens to you, if you're in a public role, it will become a much bigger story, with a much longer trail of consequences. It is what it is — it is part of the price of the mission."
She never married. Her life was her work.
"There were several close encounters with delightful men," she says. "But in every case it seemed to me that a consequence of marrying would be that my path, my ambitions, would take a second seat. I was just never willing to live other than full-out pursuing my dreams. I do think my mother's ambitions and dreams were thwarted at a fairly young age by family circumstances, and I can think back to countless instances where I suspect my mother installed the wiring in me … that said, you know, first and foremost, if you pair up with someone and have a marriage, that's lovely. But not at the expense of your career."
That career has been spectacular, a litany of awards, honours and grand appointments. There were disasters, though not for her. Two space shuttles were destroyed, one not long after take-off, one on the way to landing. The shuttle programme was abandoned, leaving America humiliatingly dependant on Russia's ever-reliable Soyuz missions to put people in space.
That situation has now begun to change with the successful crewed launch of Elon Musk's company SpaceX. How does Sullivan feel about such private-sector adventurers? In a nutshell, ambivalent. She doubts there's enough business in space to provide finance for an entirely private programme. She knows only governments are likely to go to Mars and the stars, but she is sceptical of political will.
"I always hoped that the great proclamations about back to the moon, or off to Mars, come true. But I'm old enough and I've worked in and around enough presidential administrations that, yeah, I think I've seen this movie six times."
The Trump question comes up, but she doesn't offer the usual head-clutching despair. To her, it's just another engineering glitch, a problem to be observed and solved like whatever it was that made the pom-pom guns move.
Handprints on Hubble: An Astronaut's Story of Invention by Kathryn D Sullivan is out now.
Written by: Bryan Appleyard
© The Times of London