It has always been my dream to go to space. I wanted to become an astronaut. But I went to college and there, I started my first company – a travel company. We did large and group tours to the Caribbean. After that, I started to travel around the world with this business.
Running my own travel business, I’ve visited 75 or so countries and that’s when I really started to explore and learn a lot about the world and myself. This happened when I went from being a passport stamp collector to being a “linker”, meeting amazing people all over the world. I ended up visiting my 193rd country in 2019, which is the total number of UN-recognized countries in the world.
In March 2022, I had the honor of going into space aboard the Blue Origin spacecraft, which fulfilled the dream of my life. I’ve been communicating with Blue Origin for several years, trying to get one of their spaceflights in order. I must have called them about 20 times and finally heard from them in December 2021. They called and asked if I wanted to be on the next flight and my knee literally turned! Prior to launch, we traveled to Van Horn, Texas for four days of intensive training, familiarizing the crew with launch day sequences, safety procedures, and rehearsing for getting in and out of the seat during zero gravity.
Going into space was incredible – it was an out-of-body experience. Being 66 miles above the Earth’s surface, I was touched by the blackness of the universe.
Then, in July 2022, it descended to the Challenger Deep, the deepest known point on the Earth’s floor, located about seven miles below the Mariana Trench, in the western Pacific Ocean. I learned about the opportunity to go to the ocean floor a few years ago, but with the COVID pandemic, I didn’t feel like it was the right time for me to go. Also, going into space was my primary focus. My motivation to go in 2022 was to sell the submarine and it either goes now or never. There was no discussion. I have worked hard all my life as an entrepreneur. It was worth every penny.
Challenger Deep consists of eastern, central and western pools. The pilot and I, Tim MacDonald, went to the eastern part of the East Pond, to a place that had not been explored before, reaching a depth of between 10,925 and 10,935 meters (35,843 feet and 35,875 feet). It was absolutely amazing.
The goal for me personally was to explore the ocean floor. I didn’t do any scientific research before the trip, but there were scientists on the boat our submarine descended from, mapping the sea floor. And we visited a site that, as far as we know, no human has yet traveled into the Mariana Trench.
The trench was located about 210 nautical miles southwest of Guam, and we headed from Guam aboard the DSSV Pressure Drop. Right before diving in I was mostly confident, although in the back of my mind, of course, I was somewhat worried about what could go wrong. As I was before I went to space, I thought about my friends and family, and I thought about how incredibly lucky I was to have had these experiences.
At about 8 a.m. on July 5, we boarded a submarine and disembarked. It took about four hours to get to the bottom and on the way down, I had this high anticipation of what we would see. You don’t really know. There are maps of what the topography of the ocean floor looks like there, but there have been several occasions where the maps don’t resemble what is actually there. So we had no idea what we would see. The goal was to map areas, get high-resolution videos, and place human eyes on unseen places.
When we got to the bottom it was clear from the start that we were in store for something because the sonar readings on the submarine were amazing. In fact, my pilot’s eyes lit up. I said, “What do you see?” He replied, “I’ve never seen a reading like this before.”
10 minutes or so from where we landed were amazing spots where you can see the Pacific tectonic plate actually going under the Philippines plate. We were already seeing where the two plates collide and all the rubble that came from that process.
We’ve also seen an incredible life. We’ve actually collected a number of amphibians that look like baby shrimp – they’re pretty cool. Think about it, they don’t have light, they’re at near-freezing temperatures, there’s no oxygen, there’s crushing pressure. But these creatures thrive there.
In addition, we saw some sea cucumbers, which looked like floating transparent bubbles of mucus. They’re floating around and you’re thinking, “What is that thing?” They look like alien life forms.
But to me, the most surprising thing was seeing these bacterial mats. In the light of the submarine, they looked like pieces of gold on an area of two or three square meters. But it’s not photonic – there’s no light and hardly any oxygen at the bottom. It was like being on a spacecraft on Mars. If life existed on Jupiter’s moons or other planets, I think it would probably be like what we saw in the Mariana Trench. Being able to see the marine life firsthand was amazing.
At seven miles below sea level, with billions of gallons of water, the pressure was 16,000 pounds per square inch. So obviously, if something happened where the titanium ball of the submarine was hacked it would be immediately disastrous. But the biggest danger is getting stuck and staying at the bottom with only 96 hours of emergency oxygen.
We stayed at the bottom of the Challenger Deep for about two and a half hours and I think the most emotional moment was getting to the bottom and the pilot said, “What’s that error message on the screen?” When the pilot needed to release some weight in order to get more buoyant and he flipped a switch but it didn’t work, I thought, “Oh my God, are we going to get stuck.” But luckily there was a backup, so he flipped another switch and unplugged it.
In general, everything went as planned. The fact is that the submarine was low to full ocean depth before, so I was absolutely confident that it would withstand the pressure. But I was surprised that I did not feel any unusual physical sensations inside the submarine. It’s a fully zipped compartment so my ears didn’t explode or anything like that.
I was one of less than 30 people who made this trip. Few people went to see the bottom of the Mariana Trench because it is very difficult to reach. More people have gone to the moon, which is an amazing achievement. It’s very cool.
There are eight billion people on this planet. We inhabited every square inch of land. We think we’re pretty cool. However, 70 percent of our planet is oceans, and very few have been mapped or explored. I’m also a professor, and my message has always been to my students that anything is possible – to push boundaries and keep their dreams alive. I hope to inspire them.
This experience was the equivalent of going into space, so I would definitely end up for the chance to go again. For me personally, seeing the deepest point in the ocean was a dream come true.
Jim Kitchen is an adventurer and Professor of Entrepreneurship at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan Flagler School of Business. You can follow him on Instagram @jimkitchen or Twitter Tweet embed
All opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.