In December 2021, Dylan Taylor waved to Earth from a capsule 107 kilometers above sea level. Seven months later, Taylor waved to Skaff, an ocean lander at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, from a submersible 10 kilometers below sea level.
Few humans have touched both outer space and the furthest depths of liquid space. By doing so, Taylor challenged every perspective he held about our planet.
“There’s an extraordinary feeling of stewardship in both experiences,” Taylor said. “You feel the strength and power of our planet but also its vulnerability. They were the two most profound experiences of my life.”
A rare handful of people can claim the titles of astronaut and aquanaut, a combination that Taylor recently achieved in seven months. For good measure, he also went to the bottom of the Atlantic ocean, when he and a crew including Planetary Scientist, Dr. Alan Stern visited the iconic wreck of the Titanic. The Denver-based space industry CEO, investor and philanthropist became just the second person in history to reach these three landmark thresholds: the Kármán Line of space, the floor of Challenger Deep and the wreck of the Titanic. Each destination resonated with Taylor in profound ways.
On Dec. 11, 2021, Taylor joined five fellow passengers aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard spacecraft for an exhilarating ride to space as a commercial astronaut. The mission represented New Shepard’s third crewed flight and the first with six passengers. Among them were Laura Shepard Churchley, daughter of astronaut Alan Shepard (for whom the craft was named), and Good Morning America host Michael Strahan.
As Chairman and CEO of Voyager Space, a global space exploration company, Taylor is building the future of the commercial space industry. An important project his company is developing is a potential replacement for the International Space Station. NASA in 2021 awarded Voyager Space, Nanoracks, and Lockheed Martin a $160 million contract to design Starlab, a low-orbit commercial space station which will also include the George Washington Carver Science Park.
To truly understand space, however, Taylor needed to go. So he bought two tickets on New Shepard: one for himself and one for a future astronaut (Taylor founded the non-profit Space for Humanity, which sponsors a citizen astronaut program). Floating weightless in New Shepard 107 kilometers above Earth, following as the sky blended from blue and white to purple and then black, Taylor experienced what astronauts call the Overview Effect. Seeing the planet from that distance inverted his view of Earth and space. Earth, he quickly discovered, is an “oasis” in the natural world of space.
“I was struck by the notion that people live their whole lives thinking Earth, the air we breathe, and the life we enjoy is natural, and space is abstract,” Taylor said. “It’s actually the opposite. What is natural is dark, cold, and hostile space. We live just on the other side of a portal, in a magical place that is a miracle to exist at all.”
In July 2022, Taylor further explored that miracle aboard Limiting Factor, a deep submergence vehicle piloted by fellow explorer Victor Vescovo, whose fascination with extreme environments intrigued Taylor. Vescovo has summited the world’s seven highest peaks and descended to the floor of its oceans. He guided Taylor to a previously unexplored corner of Challenger Deep, Earth’s deepest-known point.
Challenger Deep, located in a region of the western Pacific Ocean known as the Mariana Trench, reaches approximately 10,850 meters at its deepest location. Vescovo, who has explored multiple sectors of this murky world, took Taylor to the western edge of Challenger Deep’s eastern pool. They dived to the very bottom, where sunlight doesn’t reach and sea creatures are sparse. There, Taylor traversed another dark, cold, hostile space, brightened by the submersible’s light system and the nearby lamps of robotic lander “Skiff,” which acted as a navigator, sample collector, and videographer.
Vescovo and Taylor became the first two humans to visit this part of Challenger Deep. Perhaps no one will return. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 80 percent of Earth’s oceans remain unexplored. During his tour of Challenger Deep, Taylor marveled at the fact that, though oceans contain 99 percent of Earth’s inhabitable space, humans have mapped only 5 percent of them, according to UNESCO.
For Taylor, both experiences reinforced the delicate nature of humans and the vulnerability we all share on this planet. In space, Taylor floated weightless for several minutes in a fully autonomous craft designed for reuse. At Challenger Deep, 90 millimeters of titanium separated Taylor from a deadly 16,000 pounds-per-square-inch of pressure.
Each experience proved life-altering. Together, they inspired a humbling realization.
“We’ve got all our eggs in one basket,” Taylor said, “and it’s a very fragile basket.”