Space Nursing: Boldly Going Where No Nurse Has Gone Before
By Dawn Papandrea
It's a very noble thing to want to become a registered nurse, but what if you found out you could take your career to outer space and work for NASA? The great thing about the nursing profession is that there are many fascinating and cool specialties you could pursue – and being a NASA nurse is definitely high on the list.
Although this isn’t necessarily a position that is in very high demand right now, there’s no telling what the future may bring. Just think of all the recent headlines involving Elon Musk’s SpaceX project and the White House’s initiative to get people to Mars in the next 20 years.
If you’re interested in pursuing a nursing career that’s out of this world, here’s what you need to know about aerospace nursing.
What Is A Space Nurse?
Beyond space missions, the majority of aerospace nurses today provide critical and emergency care during transport for patients who are air evacuated. These nurses are trained to deal with the unique challenges of patient care in an unstable setting with limited resources. In addition, they have to know how to deal with decompression sickness that often happens in flight.
On the space front, there are also nurses who are involved in the care of astronauts prior to launch, and who are on standby when they touch down. They perform pre- and post-launch assessments and provide instructions to astronauts for how to handle medical emergencies while in flight.
The First NASA Nurse
The pioneer of this profession was Dee O’Hara, who became the first nurse to work with the original seven Mercury astronauts back in the 1960s. She continued working with astronauts in the Gemini, Apollo and Skylab programs.
In an interview with the BBC, O’Hara said that appointing a nurse was 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 said, “but they would probably tell a nurse.”
In other words, the same relationship of trust that nurses must build with their patients in hospitals is even more important in a situation involving sending a crew into space.
How to Become a NASA Nurse
The first step toward becoming a NASA nurse is obviously to become an RN. To become an RN, you have to graduate from a program of study that is approved by your State Nursing Board - either a bachelor’s or associate degree program. Upon completion, you have to pass the NCLEX-RN.
Because aerospace nursing is so specialized, you might consider becoming a military flight nurse with the Air Force in order to break in since they deal with pilots and high-tech flight. Another route is to pursue civilian flight nurse training.
It’s also a good idea to get involved with organizations like the ASMA (Aerospace Medical Association). For instance, one of its annual conferences showcases scientific advances and contributions to flight nursing. There are also publications like the Air Medical Journal that covers the industry.
Although there might not be an abundance of NASA nurse or aerospace nursing jobs, the next decade’s developments could change that.
There may be a time in the near future in which civilians will take trips to the moon, or you may even start to hear talk about colonizing Mars. Should those pursuits begin to happen, there will be a need for aerospace nurses who can help medically clear people for space travel, and assess their health upon return.
When it comes to NASA nursing, the sky is really the limit.