Last summer I had a chance to visit one of the most remote places on our planet – a place far more difficult for a human to reach than Everest – and perhaps as hard as visiting outer space.
The place I visited is the bottom of the Mariana Trench – also known as the Challenger Deep. I was one of two people on board the Deep Submergence Vehicle (DSV) “Limiting Factor” – the other being its pilot and creator, Victor Vescovo. Limiting Factor is the first human-occupied vessel that has visited the deepest points of all of the Earth’s oceans. Limiting Factor is a true ship of exploration – one of the most uniquely-capable vehicles ever deployed in the history of seafaring.
Limiting Factor. Source: Caladan Oceanic LLC.
The specific location we visited was the western edge – of the “Eastern Pool” – of the Challenger Deep. located at a depth of approximately 10,900 meters (35,761 feet). The research team has always been interested in this location – but had yet to visit it with Limiting Factor. As such, Victor and I would be the first humans to ever see this place with our own eyes.
In case you are wondering, film maker/explorer James Cameron set down towards the middle of the Eastern Pool in his “Deepsea Challenger” DSV in 2012. I can’t wait to see what that trip did to inspire his upcoming film “Avatar The Way Of Water” much of which plays out in the oceans of Pandora, a hyper-realistic – yet fictitious – Earth-like moon orbiting a gas giant in the Alpha Centauri B star system.
We were so very, very deep that the zone we were exploring is called the “hadal” or the “hadopelagic” zone – the name having derived from Hades, the ancient Greek god of the underworld. I have been to space, but as I often remarked during my trip to this place – this was indeed like visiting another world.
The Challenger Deep Larger image – Wikipedia
One of the things we saw were yellowish/greenish bacterial matting. (see Identification of Free-Living and Particle-Associated Microbial Communities Present in Deep Regions of the Mariana Trench, Front. Microbiol., 09 May 2016). Based on my rather animated commentary as we cruised over the abyssal depths Victor decided to informally (and facetiously) name the location “Dylan’s Ridge”. After more than two hours on the ocean bottom, and all too soon it seemed to me, it was time to climb back to the surface. Victor let me hit the appropriate switch and we started to rise upwards.
Being a life-long space advocate, the resonance between this other worldly location and space was rich in my mind. The Challenger Deep was named after the ship of exploration which discovered this location: the HMS Challenger – which departed on its expedition from Portsmouth, England exactly 150 years ago this week on 21 December 1872. In the years that followed several human spacecraft have been named in honor of that famous vessel of research and exploration: the Apollo 17 Lunar Module and the second space shuttle to fly into space. As you may know, Apollo 17 visited the Moon exactly 50 years ago last week.
As such, I was humbled to be able to connect these various threads of exploration – and ships named “Challenger” – together. With me on board “Limiting Factor” was a patch from the Challenger Center For Space Science Education provided to me by its founding chair June Scobee Rodgers.
Below is a video I shot on my smartphone at the bottom of the Challenger Deep. In case the audio is hard to hear, the following is the text I read:
“In 1872 the HMS Challenger departed from England on what would become a multi-year voyage of exploration to understand the nature of Earth’s largely unknown ocean depths and the life forms waiting to be discovered. In other words, “to boldly go…”. Challenger’s crew forever altered our understanding of our ocean world. Among the most profound discoveries was the deepest location in all of Earth’s ocean which was aptly named the Challenger Deep.
A century later the last Apollo mission to the Moon landed on the shores of the Sea of Serenity. The landing ship was also named “Challenger”. Soon, another spaceship of exploration, Space Shuttle Challenger, leapt above the sky. Alas, Shuttle Challenger was lost over the Atlantic ocean on its last attempt to explore.
I now find myself at the Challenger Deep. With me is a Challenger 51-L mission patch given to me by June Scobee Rodgers. Her husband Dick Scobee commanded the Space Shuttle Challenger on its last flight. June and the Challenger families went on to found the Challenger Center which has inspired millions of children, thus continuing the mission of Space Shuttle Challenger. I am honored to complete the circle, so to speak, and honor Challenger, her crew, and their mission here at the edge of another final frontier.
Editor’s note: this video was produced to highlight Dylan’s dive:
Editor’s note: Dylan Taylor is a global business leader, thought leader, commercial astronaut and philanthropist. A vanguard in the NewSpace sector, Taylor has been cited by Harvard University, SpaceNews, the BBC, CNBC, CNN and others as having played a seminal role in the growth of the private space industry. He is also widely considered the most active private space investor in the world. As the Chairman and CEO of Voyager Space, Dylan Taylor’s influence drives much of the innovation and advancement of the space industry.