Omega cemented its bragging rights for eternity when it put its Speedmaster model on the first man to ever walk on the moon. Recently, the Swiss watchmaker added another notch to its belt with not one, but two Omega watches worn by the first woman to ever reach the Challenger Deep, the earth’s deepest point at 10,902 metres to 10,929 metres (or 35,768 feet to 35,856 feet) below sea level.
Kathy Sullivan, the first female American NASA astronaut to walk in space in 1984, became the first woman to ever dive to the Challenger Deep at 35,810 feet, which is roughly 7 miles below the ocean’s surface, in June. She also set a record as the first human to ever descend to earth’s deepest point and walk in space. Strapped to her wrists aboard the DVS Limiting Factor submersible, she was wearing an Omega Seamaster Planet Ocean 600M and a Speedmaster Skywalker X-33.
Timing is, of course, everything on extreme missions that can put one’s life at risk. “When you’re on the bottom of the seafloor you feel just like you feel when you’re sitting in a chair at your desk, except you’re keenly aware that right outside that little sphere, is absolutely crushing pressure—8 tons per square inch,” Sullivan told Robb Report. “It’s like an elephant on stiletto heels.” The dive was an effort, alongside Victor Vescovo—an American private equity investor, retired naval officer and undersea explorer—to improve and refine the topographic maps of the bottom of the Challenger Deep, which Sullivan says, unsurprisingly, is “not an easy thing to do almost 11,000 metres under the water.”
The Speedmaster Skywalker X-33 that accompanied her is a watch that is actually a descendant of the timepiece she wore on the Space Shuttle Challenger mission STS-41-G, 36 years ago. “I wore two watches inside the cabin and one on my spacesuit,” says Sullivan, who says the mission required the setting of four alarms to carefully choreograph the astronauts’ mission while in space. The watches were digital Seikos because, according to Sullivan, the astronauts needed a tool to measure both Greenwich Time and Mission Elapsed Time and in the early ’80s, the Japanese watchmaker was the only company they found that had a watch that could do that. “Mission Elapsed Time basically runs like a stopwatch that starts at zero when the shuttle lifts off and then counts forward,” says Sullivan. It is used to avoid the rescheduling of events in case the launch time changes. It counts forward in normal days, hours, minutes and seconds (for example, 3/04:50:02 MET means it has been three days, fours hours, 50 minutes and 2 seconds since liftoff).
“Nowadays, Omega has created a watch that does, which is called the Skywalker X-33, which has been certified by the European Space Agency,” says Sullivan. “It’s a combination analog and digital watch. It not only does that simple thing that the Seiko watch used to do but it has added several other functions that are important to astronauts. My dual time zone watch nowadays is that Omega.” On her other arm she wore her Seamaster. She says she wore two watches this time around simply because she liked them. “I tend to wear my white and gold Seamaster more routinely because it’s a little bit slimmer,” says Sullivan. “I just knew that I would enjoy having a watch on my wrist day to day that I knew I had taken to The Challenger Deep.”
Despite the obvious need for timing in a precarious exploration adventure, she says time actually seems to disappear. “You’re just so absorbed that whatever little tick-tock function in our brain, that makes us so keenly aware of the passing of time, is cemented completely by being so fully absorbed In what you’re seeing and what you’re doing and where you are,” says Sullivan. But the actual timing and experience of both missions differed wildly. “To get into orbit the experience is short and intense and explosive; You’re riding a bomb off of the planet,” says Sullivan. “Getting to the Challenger Deep, in contrast, is like a serene 4-hour-long elevator ride. It felt more like a ride on a jetliner than sitting on the inside of a bomb.”
As you can imagine, the view from the bottom isn’t quite the same as the view from the top either. In space, Sullivan says you have a panoramic view of about 1,000 miles, while on the bottom of the seafloor you just have the little patch of light emitted from the submersible—on her dive about 30 feet of visibility. But, she says, both are like being aboard a magic school bus. “You get in this spectacularly engineered craft, whether it’s a space shuttle or a submersible, that lets you go somewhere and be somewhere to explore and discover in environments where otherwise you have no business being there and cannot survive there,” says Sullivan. “They are like magic little capsules, but there’s not really any magic to it. It’s just solid science and engineering, but it’s magic to get to be in these places.”
Back in the days when she was just a passenger on a real school bus, Sullivan said she only had a vague idea of what she wanted to be. The explorers she saw in National Geographic, Life and Look magazines became her heroes. “The particular motivators in the popular media were the early astronauts and aquanauts, like Jacques Cousteau and others,” she says. “From the time I was nine years old through my high school years, their exploits were all over the media and I was just mesmerised by them.” It turns out she would surpass some of her own heroes in achievements, but Sullivan says it wasn’t always smooth sailing. “You can look at my resume and say well, ‘You went to college and then you completed graduate school and then bam, you’re an astronaut,’” says Sullivan. But she says it took years of mastering skills and knowledge before she would go up against 9,000 applicants to NASA’s space program to become just one of 35 chosen. And, she says, the biggest journey has been learning from within. “I think it’s broadly a truth about life in general, but along the road of mastering these skills and knowledge, I over and over again discovered that you have to find out how to master yourself.”
So what’s the next big dream on the 68-year-old explorer’s bucket list? Sullivan says it’s “to go to Mars.”