Profiles In Nursing

Dolores “Dee” O’Hara (1935–), First NASA Space Nurse

Her nursing skills launched an out-of-this-world career

Dolores O'Hara in uniform and smiling while holding her right hand up waving

When Dolores “Dee” O’Hara entered nursing school after graduating from Oregon’s Lebanon High School in 1953, she had no idea her nursing career would have her literally reaching for the stars. In 1960, she became the first nurse to join NASA, launching a new specialty: aerospace nursing.

Surprise Landings

Born in Nampa, Idaho, O’Hara grew up in Oregon. After being impressed by a nurse at her high school’s career day, she enrolled in the Providence Hospital School of Nursing and later became a surgical nurse at the University of Oregon Medical School.

While she enjoyed bedside nursing, the physical toll exacerbated O’Hara’s back problems, so she pivoted to diagnostic roles, including lab testing and radiology.

In the spring of 1959, her life took another unexpected turn when her roommate suggested they both join the Air Force. O’Hara’s first reaction was skepticism — “Nice girls don’t do that,” she declared — but the allure of traveling and seeing the world ultimately changed her mind.

After completing officer training, O’Hara departed for her first assignment, in the labor & delivery unit of the Patrick Air Force Base hospital in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

An Out-of-This-World Offer

In November 1959, O’Hara was summoned to the office of the hospital commander, Col. George M. Knauf, who offered her a remarkable opportunity: to join Project Mercury, a new NASA program to put human astronauts into space.

O’Hara had no idea what an astronaut was, and she had never even heard of NASA (which had been established just 13 months earlier), but she accepted the job offer, “not knowing at all what I had committed myself to.”

Nursing Education

She later learned that adding a nurse to the NASA medical support team had been Knauf’s inspiration. He knew that the space program would put astronauts under tremendous strain, so it would be crucial to quickly identify medical problems or health risks.

However, he also knew that the Mercury astronauts, like most pilots, would be reluctant to admit health problems that might cost them their chance to fly.

Knauf decided a nurse was the answer: The astronauts would be more honest about their health and wellness with a nurse than a flight surgeon, and the nurse would still have the clinical expertise to identify potential problems.

After an intensive search, Knauf decided that O’Hara’s experience in surgery and diagnostics ideally suited her for the job.

A Matter of Trust

O’Hara began her new assignment in January 1960 and soon ingratiated herself with her astronaut patients, who became lifelong friends. The cornerstone of that relationship was trust.

“I always told them that they could come to me with anything they wanted to and I would never betray them,” she later explained. “But, if they came to me and it was something that, in my opinion, would jeopardize the mission, then, morally and ethically, I would have to tell a doctor. That was the understanding and that was the way it worked.”

She conducted pre-and post-flight physicals and countless small but critical tasks, like checking for skin irritation from the many instruments the astronauts wore. Much of this was new territory.

“All of us, physicians, engineers, myself and everyone associated, we were all kind of marching forward and not with a lot of guidance,” she recalled, “just kind of making up the rules as we went along.”

RN Career Events

Each flight was nerve-wracking. The early rockets weren’t very reliable, and the chances of disaster were high. Watching the launches, she said, “never really got easier.”

Onward and Upward

O’Hara was part of the NASA team through every flight in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, including the 1969–72 moon landings. She was still the program’s only nurse, which gave her great autonomy and a mountainous workload, especially after her responsibilities expanded to include caring for astronauts’ families and other NASA aircraft operations crews.

“I think at one point I had a patient census of 500,” she later recalled. By the time of Alan Shepard’s historic flight in May 1961, everyone in America knew what an astronaut was. As the most publicly visible woman on the team working to put men on the moon, O’Hara became a minor celebrity, receiving fan mail, speaking invitations and even a 1962 appearance on the TV show “To Tell the Truth.”

The Air Force encouraged her to attend when she could (“it was a form of advertisement for Air Force nurses,” she explained), but she didn’t relish those appearances. She has consistently declined offers to share her experiences in a book, saying simply, “You don’t go talking about your patients.”

The Pioneer of Space Nursing

After the Apollo program ended, O’Hara left the Air Force to become a civilian NASA employee. Until her retirement in 1997, she managed the Human Research Facility at the NASA Ames Research Center in California. She was still keenly interested in the space program, and the research programs she oversaw at Ames greatly expanded NASA’s understanding of the physiological effects of space travel.

O’Hara has received a number of prestigious honors, most recently her induction into the International Air & Space Hall of Fame, Class of 2021, but she remains modest about her achievements. Many say that nurses can work anywhere — Dee O’Hara’s career proves that a nurse’s reach can truly be out of this world.

JESSICA KIRCHNER, RN, MSN, NPD-BC, is the director of nursing practice for the Ohio Nurses Association and a freelance writer specializing in the healthcare industry.

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