St. Louis woman recounts memories as early aerospace nurse

Friday, July 8, 2011 | 6:22 p.m. CDT; updated 5:12 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 19, 2011

TOWN AND COUNTRY — With NASA ending its shuttle program and preparing to begin a new era in space exploration, a St. Louis woman reflected on her role as McDonnell Aircraft's aerospace nurse in the early days of the program.

Rose Church served in that role with the company in the 1950s and the 1960s and worked with America's pioneering astronauts who did simulation and training at the McDonnell plant in St. Louis.

McDonnell Aircraft won a government contract in 1959 to build the first Mercury capsule, putting St. Louis in a prominent role in the space program. Church worked closely with the Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Neil Armstrong and other noted astronauts of the era. She reminisced recently as NASA prepared for its final launch of the space shuttle program.

Church, 89, thumbed through a 1960s-era McDonnell Aircraft promotional booklet that includes handwritten inside jokes and notes from astronauts. Jim Lovell, commander of the aborted Apollo 13 moon mission, signed his name with an arcane behind-the-scenes acronym.

"I used to help him put his urine bag on," Church told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Church's career at McDonnell began in 1951 when she answered a "help wanted" ad for an industrial nurse and got the job.

"When McDonnell hired the first doctor in aerospace medicine, I knocked on his door and said, 'You need me,'" Church said. She was tapped to be the first aerospace nurse.

Church studied the physiology of the body in flight. She set up a pulmonary function lab and maintained a medical emergency station at McDonnell. One of her jobs was to monitor astronauts and test pilots for decompression sickness.

She was among the first to reach the scene in 1966 when astronauts Elliot See and Charles Bassett, arriving at Lambert Airport in a two-seat training jet in bad weather, were killed when the jet crashed into the building where the capsules were built.

A few months after Glenn orbited the earth, McDonnell won the contract to build the two-seat Gemini, the next generation space vehicle.

Those early days of space exploration were a proud time for St. Louis.

"People from around the country, probably around the world, were watching us," said Norm Beckel, 89, a retired McDonnell engineer.

"We were doing things that had never been done, and most of us were just out of college," Beckel said.

McDonnell did not land the Apollo project, America's third-generation program aimed at landing a man on the moon. It went to North American Aviation.

"After Gemini, we took a back seat," Beckel said. "We were disappointed but very proud of what we did."

Church left McDonnell in 1967 after the Gemini program ended. She became a swimming instructor and later a real estate agent. She shut down her operation two years ago, she said.

Church has remained connected to her past, giving lectures on how to keep an astronaut alive in space.

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