From the deepest seas to Perseverance's home on Mars, curiosity drives astronaut Kathy Sullivan

Astronaut Kathryn Sullivan as seen on one of NASA's space shuttles in 1990.
Astronaut Kathryn Sullivan as seen on one of NASA's space shuttles in 1990. (Image credit: NASA)

For retired astronaut Kathryn Sullivan, life is about exploring whatever is around you.

As a NASA astronaut, she became the first American woman to walk in space. On Earth, she played a pivotal role in the development of the Hubble Space Telescope, ensuring that future spacewalkers would have the tools necessary to fix the satellite's instruments long after it launched. And this summer, she visited the deepest point of the ocean, the Mariana Trench. (Her friends jokingly call her "a woman who has extreme ups and downs," she said.) 

But exploration isn't necessarily about extremes, she emphasized during a media event hosted by the Desert Research Institute.

"My life as an explorer started at [a] very small scale in our small backyard in northern New Jersey, and on the pages of books," Sullivan said. "Exploring doesn't always have to be about going off to far places. Exploring really amounts to putting curiosity into action."

Related: Kathy Sullivan, 1st American woman to walk in space, on the all-female spacewalk that could have been

"Curiosity is another great attribute. Never be afraid of asking 'why?' or 'I wonder how?' or 'what if I?' and pursuing that question," Sullivan said. "It's not so much about knowing answers or finding them or looking them up. It's really about learning how to think and reason so that you can build answers to questions that maybe no one ever asked before."

During the event, Sullivan compared her three flights on NASA's space shuttles in the 1980s and '90s with her recent excursion in a submersible dubbed the "Limiting Factor." For her, the two extreme journeys were stunningly different — although both required a vehicle that can protect a human body from pressures it can't otherwise withstand.

"Leaving the planet to go to outer space is an explosive event: It's very short, it's very intense, it only takes eight and a half minutes to get into orbit," she said. "Leaving the surface of the Earth to go to the bottom of the deep sea is much more peaceful, calm, smooth. It's like a serene elevator ride."

The view is also staggeringly different, she said. "From a spacecraft, you can see about 1,000 miles [1,600 kilometers] in any dimension from the altitudes that we flew at," Sullivan said. "And in a submersible, you can only see as far as the lights that you brought with you illuminate — and in the deep, deep sea, that's commonly around 30 feet," or about 9 meters.

But even after visiting both space and the bottom of the ocean, Sullivan isn't done with exploration. In particular, she's following along with NASA's Mars Perseverance rover, which landed on the Red Planet in February with a small companion helicopter that will fly this month.

"A little part of me is envious of Perseverance that she gets to be there and I don't — actually on the surface of Mars, scuffing at the soil with my own boot or sifting it through my own gloved hand and taking in the full experience of being there," Sullivan said. "Not just looking at Perseverance's spectacular images; spectacular though they are, I think we all know as human beings, it's one thing to look at someone spectacular photo of a place or event and it's a different one to be there and experience it."

Counting on science

For Sullivan, the importance of curiosity and exploration isn't just about personal fulfillment; it's also key for individuals, organizations and governments alike to navigate the current world.

"We all live lives that are woven through with science," she said, arguing that people should aim to understand the basics of how natural and technical phenomena affect everyday life. "Why would you want to be a passive consumer that's just like a cork bobbing along on the waves with no real autonomy or agency to act? Learn something about that so you can steer your boat a little bit better."

And engaging with science is even more important for governments looking to tackle the host of interlocking problems we face, she said, particularly with the ongoing climate crisis, which President Joe Biden has said will be a priority for his administration.

"The best available science that we have globally is the right starting point, it's the best and most reliable starting point for the complex decisions that we will face as citizens and businesses and society," Sullivan said.

"Science doesn't provide all of the answer or the complete answer, but it tells you certain boundary conditions, certain constraints that you need to take into account. And certainly it helps us guide our sense of what risks are ahead, and how might we prepare for them or mitigate them or be ready to adapt to them."

Email Meghan Bartels at or follow her on Twitter @meghanbartels. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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Meghan Bartels
Senior Writer

Meghan is a senior writer at and has more than five years' experience as a science journalist based in New York City. She joined in July 2018, with previous writing published in outlets including Newsweek and Audubon. Meghan earned an MA in science journalism from New York University and a BA in classics from Georgetown University, and in her free time she enjoys reading and visiting museums. Follow her on Twitter at @meghanbartels.