Making headlines is never something that has motivated Kathy Sullivan.
Already in the history books as the first US woman to complete a spacewalk in 1984, the 68-year-old found herself in the news again this week after becoming the first woman to travel almost seven miles (11km) to reach the lowest known point in the ocean.
The two missions, total opposites in the minds of some, represent two extremes of a lifelong passion for Dr Sullivan: to understand the world around her as much as possible.
“I was always a pretty adventurous and curious child with interests wider and more varied than the stereotype of a little girl,” Sullivan told the BBC in a phone interview from the Pacific Ocean.
She was born in New Jersey in 1951 and spent her childhood in California. Her father was an aerospace engineer who, along with her mother, would always encourage their two children to think freely and join in with discussions.
“They really fed our curiosity on anything we were curious about or interested in,” she says. “They were our best allies to explore that interest further and see where it might take us: it might die out in a couple of days, it might be something that became our best hobby or it might turn into the central focus of our career.”
By the time they were five or six, it was already clear her brother wanted to grow up to fly aeroplanes. Sullivan, meanwhile, became fascinated by maps and learning more about the interesting places on them.
“Both of our careers have basically been remarkably wonderful fulfilments of those early dreams,” she reflects.
As a little girl, Sullivan was already devouring every newspaper, magazine and television report she could find on the subject of exploration. It was a time when Jacques Cousteau was making pioneering undersea discoveries and the Mercury Seven were propelling the image of astronauts into America’s mind.
“I saw these people – they happened to all be men, that didn’t bother me… I saw there are people in the world that have continually inquisitive, adventurous lives: they’re going to places no-one’s been and they have this store of knowledge and they’re learning more.”
“My way of thinking about it never crystallised into: I want that job, I want that title or that label,” she explains about her ambitions as a teenager. “But what I knew really clearly was what I wanted my life to be like, I wanted it to have that mixture of inquiry and adventure and competency.”
Her pursuit first took her into foreign languages and then, as an undergraduate, into the study of earth sciences. Back then, around 1970, it was an area still overwhelmingly male-dominated.
“The guys went out to field camps and they dressed all grubby and they never showered and they could swear and be real, rowdy little boys again to their hearts’ content,” she says. Her presence was treated like a disturbance to their fun.
Sullivan felt that by this time, there was already some change under way. She was never, for instance, harassed or bullied for her gender. “In fact, in a couple of key instances, I had some tremendously supportive male professors and colleagues that were definitely, definitely on my side and just saw me as a very capable fellow student, very capable geologist, very capable fellow shipmate.”
Sullivan saw in her marine science professors her ambitions for her own life realised – and so began to further her studies in oceanography.
She applied to Nasa as a way to deepen her knowledge of the earth further still. “My primary motivation for applying to be an astronaut was – if I somehow beat the odds and actually got chosen – I could get to see the earth from orbit with my own eyes.”
Sullivan was admitted into Nasa’s class of 1978. It was the first recruitment drive that brought women into its astronaut ranks.
Six were selected from the class of 35 and Sally Ride, seen on the far left of the image above, became the first of them to fly into space in 1983.
Ride would later recount the unique challenges of being the first women recruited into the space program. Engineers tried to design special make-up kits and wildly overestimated how many tampons would be needed for week-long missions.
Sullivan’s first mission, STS-41-G, set off on 5 October 1984. It was the 13th flight of Nasa’s Space shuttle program and the sixth trip for the Space Shuttle Challenger.
On 11 October 1984 Sullivan made history when she became the first American woman to leave a spacecraft, along with fellow mission specialist David Leestma, on a spacewalk to demonstrate the feasibility of an orbital refuelling system.
She went on to take part in two more missions, including the 1990 launch of the Hubble Space Telescope. She logged 532 hours in space in total and was inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame in 2004.
“My spacewalk was three and a half hours long. It’s a spacewalk that counts but that’s actually very short as spacewalks go,” Sullivan says.
“I was just delighted to see women come after me and do, you know, much more elaborate, much more complicated, much more demanding spacewalks.”
Over the years, Sullivan has also been buoyed to see women increasingly involved at senior levels throughout the space program – including in commanding roles and managing missions from the ground.
“These are all wonderful things and I think help show young girls that you can make your way to these places,” she says. “No one’s promising you a primrose path. You know, you’re gonna have your setbacks, you’re gonna have to persist and persevere.
“You’re going to have to fight back sometimes. But the door is at least ajar – it’s not wide open, but you can make your way through it.”
Last year an all-female spacewalk eventually happened for the first time. It was a nice little “bookend” moment for Sullivan, especially given Christina Koch wore the same life support system backpack Sullivan had all the way back in 1984.
Upon leaving Nasa in 1993, Sullivan went on to serve as chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and later as its administrator under President Obama. Between those positions she spent years as president and CEO of the Center of Science and Industry (COSI) and in a distinguished position at Ohio State University.
The surprise invitation for her latest adventure came from Victor Vescovo, a former naval officer and investor who has spent years and millions of dollars on technology to take people underwater, to the depths of our planet.
The Challenger Deep is the deepest known part of the earth’s seabed. Part of the Mariana Trench, it is almost seven miles (11km) below the ocean’s surface, 200 miles southwest of Guam in the Pacific Ocean.
It was first reached in 1960 by two men – US Navy Lt Don Walsh and Swiss oceanographer Jacques Piccard – and has only been reached a handful of times since, including by Titanic director James Cameron.
Sullivan said he contacted her via email to invite her on his latest mission, because he thought it was “really time” for a woman to get down there.
She suspects it was her friendship with Don Walsh, the oceanographer first to reach the Challenger Deep, that earned her the recommendation. After researching Vescovo’s endeavour, she excitedly agreed.
Last Sunday she accompanied him down more than 35,800ft (10,900m) inside the two-person submersible – becoming only the eighth person and first woman to reach the bottom.
She describes the journey as like being inside a magic sphere. Seeing the lander – an unmanned robotic vehicle that descends to the seafloor – alongside them at such depth was like stumbling upon “an alien space probe”, she says.
“I mean, it’s just magical that we can go to these places because of the ingenuity and the engineering prowess of these teams of people, we can take our bodies to places that we really have no business being.
“And we can do that, essentially, in street clothes. I mean, I ate lunch 31,000ft below the surface of the ocean on Sunday. That’s crazy.”
EYOS Expeditions, which organised the expedition, also facilitated a call between the pair and the International Space Station (ISS) when they emerged – a fitting representation of the two extremes of humankind’s exploration.
In a press release for the dive, the organisers drew the comparison between Vescovo’s enterprise and what is being done with SpaceX – saying they both show the “exciting potential” of private companies contributing to technological advancement worldwide.
Sullivan believes that as nations and individuals we should continue to push the boundaries of our knowledge about the world we live in.
She also expresses her hope for improved diversity and female representation across the world of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem).
“The stereotype is a very dull person in a lab coat that just knows numbers and just knows principles,” she says. “But in so many fields where science and technology are at the core of what you’re doing, it’s completely creative.”
So does she have any plans for her next adventure?
“I think exploration can take many forms – it doesn’t have to be venturing off physically to the middle of the Pacific Ocean or to the earth orbit,” she says. “There are topics, there are subjects, that there are lots of dimensions to exploring.
“I think I will be exploring until they put me in a little wooden box at some point in the future.”
The next webinar in the SSF series, with ecological economist and futurist Hazel Henderson, will address how the UN SDGs can and should replace GDP as the basis for valuing society leading to an economy based on planet protection and human wellbeing. Claudine Schneider is Hazel’s guest.
GDP accounts for all the public expenditures as “debt” while ignoring the value of the assets they created. If GDP were to be corrected by including the missing asset account, these debt-to-GDP ratios would be cut by up to 50% — with a few keystrokes! Learn why money isn’t what you think it is and why that matters to life on Earth in the next two webinars with Hazel and guests.
Claudine Schneider is a former Republican U.S. representative from Rhode Island. She was the first, and to date only, woman elected to Congress from Rhode Island. She is founder of Republicans for Integrity, which describes itself as a network of “Republican former Members of Congress who feel compelled to remind Republican voters about the fundamentals of our party and to provide the facts about incumbents’ voting records.”
October 22nd webinar with Claudine Schneider and Hazel
Akron, Ohio-based RVShare has seen sharp growth in demand amid the pandemic, as more would-be travelers seek socially distanced options for hitting the road. Founded in 2013, the company matches RV owners with prospective renters, filtering by location, price and vehicle types.
Previously, RVShare had raised $50 million in known funding, per Crunchbase data, from Tritium Partners. The company is one of several players in the RV rental space, and competes alongside Outdoorsy, a peer-to-peer RV marketplace that has raised $75 million in venture funding.
BrightFarms closes on $100M: Indoor farming company BrightFarms said it secured more than $100 million in debt and new equity capital to support expansion plans. The Series E round of funding was led by Cox Enterprises, which now owns a majority stake in the company, and includes a follow-on investment from growth equity firm Catalyst Investors.
Anyscale inks $40M: Anyscale, the Berkeley-based company behind the Ray open source project for building applications, announced $40 million in an oversubscribed Series B funding round. Existing investor NEA led the round and was joined by Andreessen Horowitz, Intel Capital and Foundation Capital. The new funding brings Anyscale’s total funding to more than $60 million.
Klar deposits $15M: Mexican fintech Klar closed on $15 million in Series A funding, led by Prosus Ventures, with participation from new investor International Finance Corporation and existing investors Quona Capital, Mouro Capital and Acrew. The round brings total funding raised to approximately $72 million since the company was founded in 2019. The funds are intended to grow Klar’s engineering capabilities in both its Berlin and Mexico hubs.
Blustream bags $3M: After-sale customer engagement company Blustream said it raised $3 million in seed funding for product usage data and digital transformation efforts for physical goods companies via the Blustream Product Experience Platform. York IE led the round of funding for the Worcester, Massachusetts-based company with additional support from existing investors.Pillar secures another $1.5M: Pillar, a startup that helps families protect and care for their loved ones, raised $1.5 million in a seed extension to close at $7 million, The round was led by Kleiner Perkins.
Google rejects DOJ antitrust arguments: In the wake of a widely anticipated U.S. Justice Department antitrust suit against Google, the search giant disputed the charges in a statement, maintaining that: “People use Google because they choose to, not because they’re forced to, or because they can’t find alternatives.”
Facebook said to test Nextdoor rival: Facebook is reportedly testing a service similar to popular neighborhood-focused social Nextdoor. Called Neighborhoods, the feature reportedly suggests local neighborhood groups to join on Facebook.
Online shopping has become the norm for most people in 2020, even coaxing traditional retail brands to up their presence to stay competitive. However, now that shoppers can’t see and touch products like they used to, e-commerce discovery has become a crucial element for customer acquisition and retention.
Enter Syte, an Israel-based company that touts creating the world’s first product discovery platform that utilizes the senses, such as visual, text and voice, and then leverages visual artificial intelligence and next-generation personalization to create individualized and memorable customer experiences, Syte co-founder and CEO Ofer Fryman told Crunchbase News.
This brings the company’s total fundraising to $71 million since its inception in 2015. That includes a $21.5 million Series B, also led by Viola, in 2019, according to Crunchbase data.
Fryman intends for the new funding to be put to work on product enhancements and geographic expansion. Syte already has an established customer base in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and will now focus expansion in the U.S. and Asia-Pacific.
Meanwhile, Syte has grown 22 percent quarter over quarter, as well as experienced a 38 percent expansion of its customer base since the beginning of 2020.
“Since we crossed $1 million annual recurring revenue, we have been tripling revenue while also becoming more efficient,” Fryman said. “We can accelerate growth as well as build an amazing technology and solution for a business that needs it right now. We plan to grow further, and even though our SaaS metrics are excellent right now, our goal is to improve them.”
Anshul Agarwal, managing director at LG Technology Ventures, said Syte was an attractive investment due in part to its unique technology.
“They have a deep-learning system and have created a new category, product discovery that will enable online shopping in a way we never had the ability to do before,” Agarwal said. “The product market fit was also unique. We believe in the strong execution by the team and the rapid growth in SaaS. We looked at many different companies, and the SaaS metrics that Syte showed are the strongest we’ve seen in a while.”