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Meet: Dee O'Hara, First Nurse to NASA's First Astronauts

photo of dee o'hara
I was the first nurse to NASA's first astronauts. In April of 1959, NASA selected and named these first seven astronauts, and I was selected in November of 1959. It was an opportunity that I was given at that particular time. I used to hear from people all over the world about how exciting they thought my job must be. They would ask how they could do it. I must admit I had the most ideal job in the world - I traveled, met movie stars, and got to associate with so many interesting people.

I was with the first seven Mercury astronauts and continued on with the other astronauts through the Gemini, Apollo and Skylab programs. During the last Skylab mission, I transferred out to Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. The flight crews invited me back to participate in the Apollo-Soyez Test Program (ASTP) and the first shuttle flight in 1983. I saw all the launches from the first Mercury launch through the first shuttle launch. I've been very lucky. I just came back from John Glenn's launch. It was wonderful seeing so many that I had worked with during John's 1962 launch, and I think it's terrific that we're all still upright and walking around! This launch was just divine. We had all been there for the very first launch (Alan Shepard's), and now here we all were again. It was very emotional for me to see this particular launch.

I was an Air Force nurse at Patrick Air Force Base. I had just arrived at Patrick in May of 1959 when I was called in, and they talked about NASA. I had no idea what they were talking about. They mentioned astronauts and I didn't know what that was. When they said Project Mercury, I thought, "Now there's a planet named Mercury, and there's mercury in a thermometer," and that was the extent of my knowledge. When they asked if I wanted the job of astronaut nurse, I wasn't really sure what the job was, but I accepted.photo of dee with astronaut It turned out I was to set up the Aeromed Lab, the exam area for the astronauts, and be with them as their nurse. The premise behind this was that they wanted someone who would get to know the astronauts so well that she would know whether they were sick or not. The astronauts certainly were not going to tell the flight surgeon because they knew the doctor had the right or capability of grounding them. That was the last thing an astronaut wanted. The deal that I made with the guys was this: I told them I would never betray them unless, in my opinion, what they told me would jeopardize them or the mission. In that case, ethically I would have to report it to the flight surgeon. They understood that. At times they did come to me with certain things. Not necessarily the first seven but more so when I went to Houston and during the Apollo programs. I was very close to the astronauts and their families for a long time. Pilots are very, very afraid of doctors. They still are. What other person in the world can ground them other than a flight surgeon or doctor? When we began the flight medicine program, it was new to all of us. We were all learning together. It was an extremely exciting time.

Bill Douglas was the flight surgeon for the first seven. During the Mercury program, the astronauts were all based at Langley Air Force Base, located in Virginia, and they would come down to Cape Canaveral and launch from here. As head of medicine for the Mercury Program, Dr. Douglas would never allow any of the astronauts to go through any test - whether it be chamber, centrifuge, or whatever - until he tested it out first. During the week, the astronauts would come for their testing, suit fittings, chamber tests and so on. Then they would go back to Langley for the weekend. When it was launch time, they would come down to the Cape again, and I would help with the preflight physicals including height, weight, temperatures, blood pressure, etc. I was always quite afraid every time they launched. It was like putting one of my best friends on a roman candle. When they returned from a mission it was the best time for me. I knew they were back safely.

Early in 1962, everyone working with the Mercury Program was getting ready to move to Houston, Texas because NASA wanted to have a central location and began building a manned space craft center, now known as Johnson Space Center. A couple of astronauts called me and asked if I would like to come to Houston. That meant I would have to resign my commission since I was an Air Force nurse. I thought about it and decided that I wanted to stay with the space program. I resigned my commission and was out of a job for a few months until the Center in Houston was completed. The Center was completed in March of 1964, and I got a phone call to come and set up the Flight Medicine Clinic.

photo of dee with astronaut's son The most difficult time in my career was the Apollo fire. It happened on a Friday, and I was going down on Monday to start the pre-flight activities. It was an excruciatingly difficult time. I've shared a lot of disappointments and losses with family members. In my job I took care of the whole family, so I knew them all intimately - they invited me into their lives. I still have contact with many of them.

I had a very normal upbringing. We were low income, and I never really had a lot of special opportunities. My father had died when I was a senior in high school, and my mother worked very hard to put me through school. I wanted to make it on my own and do it myself. I had a lot of self pride. I would never have dreamed of having my mother support me.

I graduated from nursing school and was working when one day my roommate came home from work and said we should join the Armed Forces and see the world. My initial response was, "Nice girls don't do that." I was 22 or 23 at the time. Later we went down to the recruiting station and when we walked in the recruiting sergeant looked kind of baffled, and we said, "Well, here we are, where do we sign?" Of course, he met his quota for the month when we walked in, and he was thrilled. My roommate went on to Mobile, Alabama, and I went to Patrick Air Force Base in Florida.

As I look back I wish I had been more interested in school. If I had studied harder in math and science it would have made it all easier. In those days we didn't have any guidance counselors or career counselors. If I had studied the right courses I would have had an easier time once I got to nursing school. I never felt that I was discriminated against. As to being selected to work with the first astronauts and the space program, I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. In 1959 and 1960 it was a different world than it is now. A woman usually became a secretary, nurse, or a teacher. There was the rare female engineer, but we weren't really guided or encouraged to go into other careers. I always thought I wanted to be a social worker or a school teacher. Nursing never occurred to me as I got sick when I went into hospitals. One day in high school I had career day, and a very elegant lady from Providence Hospital came. She showed pictures of the nursing school. It looked so beautiful. I thought, "Oh, wow - I would like to go there." It certainly isn't a good criterion for selecting a school, but I knew I wanted to do some work with people and thought I would give it a try. One of the best decisions of my life.

The job I had doesn't exist anymore. Now the Flight Medicine Clinic exists in a different capacity. There are three nurses, and they don't go to the Cape in support of missions the same way I did. There is not as much personal connection. There are still nurses and technicians at the Cape during the launches, but you can't be flying people back and forth from the Cape to Johnson when there is talent at the Cape. I feel fortunate to have been a part of a unique and exciting time in space history.


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