In July 2022, oceanographer Dawn Wright made history by becoming the first Black person to dive to the deepest known spot on the planet. Victor Vescovo, a former Naval officer, entrepreneur and explorer, invited Wright to accompany him on the expedition to descend more than six-and-a-half miles to Challenger Deep in the western Pacific Ocean. Wright is the chief scientist at Esri, a California-based company that develops mapping software. Wright used the occasion of her sixth deep sea dive to successfully test and operate a sonar instrument specially designed to withstand the crushing pressure found at Challenger Deep.
Wright is currently a courtesy professor at Oregon State University’s College of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. She was on faculty as a tenured professor at OSU for 17 years until 2011. She joins us to talk about her expedition to Challenger Deep, which will be the focus of a lecture that she is scheduled to give on Wednesday, Nov. 15, at the OSU campus in Corvallis. Advance registration is required to attend the free lecture online or in-person.
Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Over 600 human beings have been to space. Fewer than 30 have been to the deepest part of the ocean. Dawn Wright is one of them. In July of last year, Wright made history by becoming the first person of African descent to go to the Challenger Deep. It is over 35,000 feet below the surface of the ocean, meaning you could put Mount Everest in the trench and then still have enough water above it to submerge more than half of Mount Hood. Wright is the chief scientist at the mapping company Esri. She’s been on the faculty at Oregon State University’s College of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences for more than 20 years and she joins us now. Welcome to Think Out Loud.
Dawn Wright: Oh, thank you so much, Dave. I’m very happy to be here.
Miller: I have read that the pressure at the bottom of the trench is 16,000 pounds per square inch, but I don’t really have a sense for what that means. It sounds terrifying and literally crushing. But can you put it in perspective for us?
Wright: I know that it’s an amazing number, but it is really hard to understand what that means. And there’s so many analogies. One of my favorites is one that I use for school children in terms of, if you had the Eiffel Tower on your big toe, or if you had 25 fully laden jumbo jets on your back, that would be equivalent. Another really good analogy, I think, is the atmospheric pressure on the planet Venus is similar to the hydrostatic pressure at Challenger Deep. So we are literally talking about an alien world, another world, but it’s our world.
Miller: What does it take, engineering-wise, to build a capsule and to put people who survive, who we can talk to today, in a capsule that can withstand that much pressure? What does it take?
Wright: I think the world woke up to this with the OceanGate Titan submersible tragedy, in terms of what not to do and what kind of design is not going to work.
The majority of the submersible diving community, in terms of scientific submersible diving as well as commercial diving, have ascribed for decades to the principle of the sphere. If you have people inside of a sphere - and the submersible that I was in was machined to 99.9% pure sphericity - that is what is going to protect you from those tremendous hydrostatic pressures.
Miller: The shape itself.
Wright: The shape is very important. And then the material.
Victor Vescovo, who took me to Challenger Deep, he had Titan Submersibles, Titan Submarines in Florida, design the craft that we were in, and they used titanium as the material. So we were sitting inside of a titanium sphere, and that ultimately ensured our safety, our success.
And the Limiting Factor, the submersible that we were in, is often called the space shuttle of the ocean because it is one of only two vessels that has been able to go repeatedly to Challenger Deep and back. It’s done this dozens of times. Victor himself has piloted the Limiting Factor to Challenger Deep 15 times and I was very, very proud and thrilled to be the last person to do that with him.
Miller: I’ve seen you describe the descent as like being in an elevator, which I have to say is really prosaic. Probably everybody who’s listening has been in an elevator, but probably nobody else, besides you, who’s listening right now, has been 35,000 ft below the surface of the ocean. So the elevator seems like that’s maybe what it feels like physically or looks like on some level, but what about emotionally? I mean, what are you feeling as you descend?
Wright: Well emotionally, it’s very comforting, but it’s also very thrilling. It’s like waiting for the climax of a good story that you’re reading, because what you want to get to is the crux of the story, which is reaching the bottom so that you can fulfill your scientific objectives.
Now, for me, I went to Challenger Deep with Victor Vescovo as a mission specialist. So I really did have a scientific experiment, or in the case of our dive, we were testing this prototype mapping instrument that normally implodes when it gets to 6,000 meters. And we had a specially designed one that we took all the way down to the bottom. So we were waiting with anticipation, over the course of four hours, to descend to the bottom so that we could turn on this instrument and see if we could get it to work.
So, in that sense, it’s maybe, for people who are taking a dream vacation, you’re going to London or you’re going to the place that you’ve dreamed about going your entire life, and you get on the plane and you might have a 10-hour plane flight and you’re enjoying the flight, but the excitement builds as you get closer to your destination. And that’s what it was like for me.
Miller: This equipment, that had never been used at full ocean depth, it’s known as a ‘side-scan sonar system.’ What is special about it? What can you do with it?
Wright: These types of systems - and they’re called side-scan sonar because they’re made up of two narrow rectangles and in the case of the submersible, they were positioned on the bottom of the submersible to send out scans of sound. They each look in a slightly different direction and the width of the area on the seafloor that they are ensonifying is such that when those two scans come together, you get a pretty full image looking in either direction.
And these types of instruments are often used to find shipwrecks. In fact, a cousin of this instrument that was made by Deep Ocean Search of France and Mauritius - Deep Ocean Search customized and creates these instruments - that particular instrument was used in the discovery of Shackleton’s Endurance earlier in 2022. That’s the shipwreck in the Antarctic that people have been looking for forever and ever, and they finally found it with the help of this particular instrument. We wanted to do a variation on that theme and see if we could get this instrument to do similar work at full ocean depth as deep as you can go, which for us was 10,919 meters.
So these types of instruments are used to find wrecks, but they’re also very important, very useful geologically because they can elucidate or they can show us where there are are faults or fissures or major geological features that we should be focusing on, especially if we’re trying to understand the earthquake activity, the landslide activity, any type of geological activity in these very active places. And Challenger Deep is in a trench, it’s in the Mariana Trench. It’s a major subduction zone. So if you think about the Cascadia Subduction Zone off the coast of Oregon and Washington, the Mariana Trench is that type of tectonic feature.
Miller: What did you learn from this trip that you think is most important?
Wright: Well, one of the things that’s important about all of the deep sea dives that occur, that reach all areas of the ocean, is that it’s a little piece of a puzzle that we’re putting together in terms of the complexity of this planet. And I loved your analogy at the outset, in terms of all the people who’ve gone to space, and yet we’ve had a very, very small percentage of people, of scientists, of explorers who have explored the totality of our own planet.
Miller: How do you explain that? I mean, is that largely a technical question, an engineering question or is it one of human desire, that there was just more interest in going up than in going down?
Wright: Yeah, I think it’s both. Now, technically we are a water planet. I think most listeners have heard that the ocean covers 71% of our Earth’s surface and water is not particularly easy to see through. And the same types of instruments that have given us a full topographic map of the moon or Venus or now, my company, for instance, has been working with NASA JPL [Jet Propulsion Laboratory] to release a full 3D web globe of the entirety of Mars. Those planets are not water planets. And so those instruments do not have to contend with seeing through water, which disrupts their signals.
Miller: Are you saying that we are already or are soon going to have a clearer picture of the surface of Mars than of the bottom of the Earth’s ocean?
Wright: Oh my goodness. Yes, we’ve already got that. Yeah. And we’ve had that for many years. We are trying with Earth, but with the Earth, we have to go a little slower with instruments that use sound instead of electromagnetic radiation, and that takes time. And it’s a lot slower of a process to gather the same detail of data for all of the ocean floor. There are many of us, including those of us at Oregon State, who are involved in this United Nations initiative called Seabed 2030, which is the quest to map the ocean floor in that same level of detail as we have for Mars and Venus and the moon, and to do this by 2030.
But it takes a while because we can’t use satellites to get that level of detail. We have to go to sea on ships. We have to use mapping vehicles that are affixed either to the bottom of a ship or, we do have many, many vehicles now that are autonomous, that go off on their own and can collect this data and bring it back. But, all of this takes time. In fact, one analogy, another analogy for your listeners - when we are out at sea on a ship and we’re doing this type of surveying, we’re going at about the speed that you ride your bicycle. So imagine trying to map the entirety of the Oregon Coastal Zone - and we have gotten to that, thank goodness over the years, thanks to the work of Dr. Chris Goldfinger and others - but that takes time if you’re doing it just at the speed that you can ride your bicycle, which is around maybe 15 or 16 miles per hour.
Miller: I know that you didn’t do your latest, and I guess last, super deep sea dive to become the first person of African descent to ever go to the deepest part of the ocean. But that’s what you did, you did make history. What did it mean to you and what has it meant to people, maybe young people, that you’ve talked to?
Wright: Yes, that was something that was very special for me. In fact, Victor Vescovo, he has been handpicking people that he’s taken to Challenger Deep to do science and to do exploration, but also to be symbols of these great feats, so to speak. So as the first Black person, it was a great honor for me. And as I was preparing for the dive, it was also during the time that Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was going through some very tough Senate nomination hearings to become the first Black woman appointed to the US Supreme Court. And that really resonated with me and really inspired me.
And I think it is really important. It’s significant to be the first, and that is a way to inspire and encourage others, especially for little children or for young people, mainly so that they can see that something like this is possible for them. It’s not off limits because you’re Black or because you’re gay or just as your first guests on the show we’re talking about, with the type of discrimination that they face. At some point, we do need to get to the place where these firsts are not necessary, but we are a long way away from that. So it’s very important to continue to inspire and to let young people see that they can aspire to do something like this one day, if they so desire. Now, they don’t have to necessarily go to the bottom of the ocean like I did, but they can aspire to other things.
Miller: We just have about a minute left. But my understanding is that the trip we’ve been talking about was likely your last one of the deepest part of the ocean. What was going through your mind when you were ascending? Knowing that you might not ever be back there?
Wright: Oh, you never know. I never thought that I would get to Challenger Deep and yet it happened last year. So I wouldn’t put that aside, especially since Victor now is talking about a new version of the Limiting Factor. But, you know, it’s pretty funny. We watched a movie on the ascent. We watched Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, because…
Miller: It wasn’t exciting enough for you to be below all of us? You had to watch some entertainment.
Wright: Well, we had a three and a half hour ascent and we had done everything, mission accomplished. Victor was tired, I was tired, so we just relaxed. All of the safety procedures were checked. We were on a safe ascent trajectory, everything was going to go well. So we watched that movie and really enjoyed ourselves.
Miller: It really was like you were on a plane. Dawn Wright, thank you very much.
Wright: Thank you so much.
Miller: That’s Dawn Wright, chief scientist at Esri. She’s going to be giving a free public lecture about her expedition this Wednesday evening in Corvallis. You can register to attend online or in person at oregonstate.edu.
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