Biographical / Historical
Kathryn D. Sullivan was born on October 3, 1951, in Paterson, New Jersey. Several years later, the Sullivan family relocated to California where her father proceeded to work in the aerospace field. After graduating from high school in 1969, Sullivan received a Bachelor of Science degree in earth sciences from the University of California at Santa Cruz. In 1978, she earned her Ph.D. in geology from Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia. During her time at Dalhousie, Sullivan participated in several oceanographic expeditions that studied the floors of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
In 1977, Sullivan applied for a position as astronaut candidate for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Her application was successful and she was accepted as part of the first group of six women astronauts hired by the space agency. Training and evaluation commenced in 1978 and was completed the following year. Dr. Sullivan was now an official astronaut, qualified for selection on space flight crews. She would make her first flight aboard NASA's new fleet of Space Shuttles five years later. This flight, designated STS-41G (Space Transportation System), lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on October 5, 1984. While circling the Earth from the orbiter
, Dr. Sullivan performed the first spacewalk or EVA (extra-vehicular activity) by an American woman. During her second shuttle flight, designated STS-31, she flew aboard the orbiter
. Lifting off from KSC on April 24, 1990, she actively participated in deploying the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) into Earth orbit. Her third and final space flight occurred aboard
once more, from March 24 to April 2, 1992. Dr. Sullivan served as Payload Commander on this mission, designated STS-45 - the first flight of Spacelab dedicated to NASA's Mission to Planet Earth program. In 1993, she retired from NASA but, not before logging a total of 532 hours in space.
Hand in hand with her NASA career, Dr. Sullivan also served her country with the U.S. Naval Reserve (USNR). In 1988, she became a direct commissioned officer with the rank of lieutenant commander. Two years later, Dr. Sullivan was given command of a specialized unit of oceanographers and meteorologists that was based at Naval Air Station Dallas. This facility provided support to the Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command Center on the island of Guam. By the time of her retirement from the USNR in 2006, she had attained the rank of captain.
Though retired from NASA, Dr. Sullivan has since maintained a very active life. Aside from her work as an USNR officer that continued into the first years of the 21st century, she also served as President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Ohio's Center of Science and Industry (COSI). Under her leadership, COSI enhanced its impact on science teaching in the classroom, as well as its national reputation as an innovator of hands-on, inquiry-based science learning resources. Additionally, from 2006-2011, she acted as Director for Ohio State University's Battelle Center for Mathematics and Science Education Policy while continuing with COSI as a volunteer science advisor.
Two decades after leaving NASA, Dr. Sullivan reentered public service within the federal government. In 2011, the Obama administration nominated, and the U.S. Senate confirmed, her as Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Environmental Observation and Prediction and Deputy Administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Moreover, starting in early 2013, she served as acting NOAA Administrator. The following year, she was confirmed by the Senate as the Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and simultaneously, as NOAA Administrator. She remained in these positions until early 2017.
Upon her retirement from government service, Dr. Sullivan was selected for the 2017 Charles A. Lindbergh Chair of Aerospace History Fellowship, at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum (NASM). During her time with the museum as a Fellow, she focused her research energies on the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). Based on this research, Dr. Sullivan wrote her book,
Handprints on Hubble: An Astronaut's Story of Invention
, which was released in 2019.
Dr. Sullivan's life as an explorer, researcher, scientist and public servant continued into the early 2020s. In 2020, she ventured aboard a specially equipped submarine to the bottom of the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench of the Pacific Ocean, becoming the first woman to reach the deepest known point of all of Earth's oceans, as well as the first person to travel to both the Challenger Deep and aboard the shuttle
) into outer space. Also, late that year, Dr. Sullivan was named a volunteer member of President-Elect Biden's presidential transition Agency Review team to help facilitate transition efforts connected to the Commerce Department. In 2021, President Biden appointed her to the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.
During her decades in public life, Dr. Sullivan has had many honors bestowed upon her and earned numerous awards – too numerous to list all of them here. The following is merely a sample: NASA Space Flight Medal (1984 and 1990), the National Air and Space Museum Trophy, Smithsonian Institution (1985), NASA Exceptional Service Medal (1988 and 1991), NASA Medal for Outstanding Leadership ((1992), Ohio Veteran's Hall of Fame (2001), Ohio Women's Hall of Fame (2002), inductee into the Astronaut Hall of Fame (2004) and the
Aviation Week & Space Technology
Aerospace Legend Award (2005). Additionally, she has received honorary degrees from multiple colleges, including ones from Brown University and Willamette University.