Science might not provide a complete answer all of the time, but it’s the best place to start in making challenging choices in society, Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, a celebrated astronaut and oceanographer says.
“Bringing science to what I would judge as a rightful role in public decision-making, a cornerstone we can all trust, that’s critically important,” Sullivan said.
On April 20, the Desert Research Institute in Reno will honor Sullivan with the 31st Nevada Medal during a virtual program. The event is free with registration required at www.nevadamedal.com.This year’s theme of the medal presentation is “Sea, Earth and Sky: Celebrating the Spirit of Exploration, Discovery and Innovation.” National correspondent James Fallows from the Atlantic will be in conversation with Sullivan during the evening.
Ahead of the event, Sullivan provided an opportunity to share her experiences and accomplishments about her life in space and within Earth’s deepest waters virtually with Northern Nevada media Wednesday.
The former New Jersey geologist and National Aeronautics and Space Administration crew member is the first American woman to walk in space and has served on three shuttle missions. She started her career in oceanography and joined NASA’s astronaut corps as one of six women in 1978. She flew on three shuttle missions, including the one in 1990 that deployed the Hubble Space Telescope. In all, she spent more than 500 hours in space, and last year, she became the first woman to dive to the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench.
She’s witnessed and been a part of a number of impressive “milestones,” as she continually referred to in the conversation.
“It was a big milestone for there to be any women in the astronaut corps, certainly, but in the years since, there have been women not only in the astronaut corps but commanding space shuttle missions, commanding space station missions, running the Johnson Space Center and now at NASA headquarters in charge of running human spaceflight,” she said. “So women, as I would expect, have happened. We have run up through the ranks into really substantial posts of leadership.”
She added there also are now teams of people from other countries living and working for months on end in space.
“It’s been continuously operated for over 20 years and continuously crewed for over 20 years,” she said, noting commercial entities are becoming more capable of living on the space frontier, a significant catalyst for change she predicts will make a large impact in the years to come.
Between 2014 and 2017, she served as the Charles A. Lindbergh Chair of Aerospace History at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum.
In June last year, she became the first woman to dive to the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench in the deepest part of the oceans.
Asked about being a role model to aspiring young girls and women who dream of using science in their careers or personal lives outside their homes and might look to her accomplishments in science and her thoughts, Sullivan said her own natural aptitude toward science began on a small scale in her backyard in New Jersey and through reading books.
“Exploring doesn’t have to be about going off to far places,” she said. “Exploring amounts to putting curiosity to action.”
That curiosity served her well before joining NASA during her graduate studies, when she went off the coast of Newfoundland to chart some of the early history of the Atlantic Ocean. It also some of her interest as a geologist in the dormant volcanoes along the Grand Banks. Sullivan said it was “super, super fun” to drag along cables over a ship she was on to scrape basaltic rock along the sediment that doesn’t quite reach the surface and examine the chemical fingerprints left behind in those areas.
“The icing on all that cake is no one had mapped these summits before,” she said. “And I actually got to name them. It was a great opportunity … and it also lent to timely, practical skills (for NASA).”
She went on to describe how she felt about NASA’s continuing work today with its Perseverance rover, which landed in February on Mars. She said she’s proud to see engineers ready the rover’s helicopter to make an attempt at a flight on another planet. The flight is expected to deploy on April 8, according to NASA.
“I feel pride and kinship for the control teams,” she said. “I know what it’s like to be part of a team doing so unique and so challenging. These are all Super Bowl teams that know how to execute.”
Sullivan said science should matter to everyone in nearly all aspects of their lives.
“If you think science doesn’t matter in your daily life, ask yourself why you can have fresh vegetables in Toronto, Canada in the middle of winter,” she said. “It should be part of your basic citizenship.”