If your job involves being strapped into a tiny metal capsule on the top of an experimental rocket to be blasted into outer space, there were few things that hold much fear. Except, perhaps, needles.
“None of them liked needles,” says the 81-year-old Dee O’Hara, nurse to America’s first astronauts. “We used to draw blood on them before they flew and they wouldn’t let anyone else take their blood but me.”
O’Hara was recruited to Nasa in 1959, six months after the agency announced the names of the pioneering Mercury 7 astronauts. These fearless military pilots, selected through a rigorous screening process, were in the peak of physical condition.
“They were the cream of the crop,” says O’Hara. “During the selection physicals, doctors had turned them every which way but loose.”
At the April 1959 press conference where the Mercury 7 were presented to the world’s media (and we see three of them smoking), the astronaut recruits were asked by a reporter which tests they liked least.
“It’s rather difficult to pick one,” answered John Glenn – later to become the first American to orbit the Earth. “If you figure how many openings there are on the human body and how far you can go into any one of them… you answer which would be the toughest for you?” (You can read the full transcript here).
Medics were not their favourite people – Dee O’Hara
His comment drew the biggest laugh of the event. By this time, however, it was clear the astronauts were sick of being pricked, prodded and probed. For the nurse appointed to do these things, the first job was to get them to trust her.
“Medics were not their favourite people,” O’Hara tells me, “especially flight surgeons, as they knew flight surgeons had the power to ground them and that’s the last thing they wanted.”
Appointing a nurse was, O’Hara believes, part of a Nasa strategy to build trust between astronauts and the medical team. “Nasa knew that if an astronaut got sick or injured they weren’t going to tell the flight surgeon,” she says, “but they would probably tell a nurse.”
O’Hara was 23 when she arrived at Cape Canaveral, Florida in January 1960 to set up the medical lab in Hangar S – the building at the heart of the early US space programme. By this time, even though they had yet to fly, the Mercury 7 were already major celebrities.
“I was terrified the first time I met them,” O’Hara confesses. “I inadvertently walked into the conference room, all seven were sitting there, I panicked, said ‘excuse me’ and backed out the door.”
Fortunately, Glenn came to find her and introduced the nurse to the group. “From then on, I got to know them, and they weren’t intimidating at all.”
On launch day you could truly feel the tension in the air – Dee O’Hara
With the space programme ratcheting up for the first manned launch, there was still a great deal of uncertainty about the effects of space on the human body. Could people even survive the rigours of spaceflight – the g forces, lack of gravity and disorientation? While the Soviets sent up dogs, the first American astronauts were chimps. They appeared to return unscathed. Then came the first humans. Humans that by now O’Hara knew better than most.
“On launch day you could truly feel the tension in the air,” O’Hara says. “They’re sitting on top of this big Roman candle, there was a lot of power and fuel underneath them and that was the scary part when that thing went off… thank God it always worked.”
As flights progressed from Alan Shepard’s first 15-minute sub-orbital flight, to Glenn’s five-hour Mercury mission, to the two-week two-man Gemini 7 mission of 1965, confidence in Nasa’s spacecraft and the capabilities of the astronauts grew.
“With each flight you learned so much more,” says O’Hara. “The medical people particularly because before we simply didn’t know what was going to happen.”
By this time, the astronauts and those around them had become a tight-knit family. A closed society, separate from the outside world. “It really was,” says O’Hara. “The astronauts were only comfortable with people they really knew because so many people wanted a piece of them.”
The fundamental medical knowledge gained on those early flights and developed by O’Hara is still relevant today
Look at any Nasa pictures of that era – from launch pad to mission control, even the reporters covering the programme – and you will rarely see any women. O’Hara was one of the few.
“Back then it was a man’s world,” she says. “There were no females in management, no female engineers, no female doctors. I would have loved to have worked with someone like [Shuttle commander] Eileen Collins, what a role model she is… and so lovely.”
The fundamental medical knowledge gained on those early flights and developed by O’Hara is still relevant today. It has been built-on to enable astronauts to remain healthy for up to a year in space, overcoming challenges such as bone loss and muscle deterioration.
The role of the doctors and nurses overseeing astronauts in the 21st Century is remarkably similar to the early 1960s. Today, however, there is no single nurse responsible for the astronauts and the doctor is as likely to be a woman as a man.
“Our testing today is a little bit gentler,” says Nasa flight surgeon Shannon Moynihan, “and a little bit more focussed.”
“We’ve learned a lot over the years,” she says, speaking to the BBC for the radio documentary Women with the Right Stuff. “We do a good deal of screening when astronauts are selected and before their assigned – normal medical testing.”
Although the medicals are less invasive than those experienced by the Mercury 7, astronauts still moan about having their blood taken.
The trust she built up with the Mercury 7 crew is still maintained 45 years on – she will never reveal any of their secrets
Of the Mercury 7, only John Glenn survives, recently celebrating his 95th birthday and still making jokes at press conferences. If anyone ever had the Right Stuff, it is him.
O’Hara stayed with the astronaut corps through to the Skylab space station programme of the early 1970s, before transferring to Nasa’s Ames research centre near San Francisco.
The trust she built up with the Mercury 7 crew is still maintained 45 years on – she will never reveal any of their secrets. “There wasn’t a bad apple in the barrel,” she says. “They were all really good guys.”
So does O’Hara miss being part of one of the world’s greatest ever adventures?
“It was exciting, it was alive, there was so much going on – if everybody played their part, they got their guy off the ground and back again,” she says. “I miss that, I really do.”
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