Rose Church dies at 90; America's first 'aerospace nurse'

2012-11-09T00:30:00Z 2012-11-09T07:26:21Z Rose Church dies at 90; America's first 'aerospace nurse'By MiICHAEL D. SORKIN msorkin@post-dispatch.com
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Rose Church, who died last week at age 90, dreamed of going to the moon. She even made up lists of people she would take with her.

She never made that trip, but she did become the first “aerospace nurse” for America’s space program.

She created the job, applied for and won it.

Among the astronauts in her care were Alan Shepard, the first American in space; John Glenn, the first to orbit Earth; and Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon.

Rose Bernadette Church-Gleason died Nov. 2 (2012) at Mari de Villa retirement center in west St. Louis County. She had recently suffered bouts of pneumonia, her family said. She was a longtime resident of Town and Country.

Mrs. Church — that was her professional name —answered a help-wanted ad in 1951 for an industrial nurse at McDonnell Aircraft and got the job.

Her duties put her in contact with the bosses, including the top boss: James S. McDonnell, known as “Mr. Mac.”

The company made fighter planes in its plant at Lambert Field. In 1959, it won a government contract to build the Mercury capsule, which was to be America’s first manned space vehicle.

The company advertised for an aerospace physician. Mrs. Church waited until she was in the executive suite giving a shot to Mr. Mac to bring up the subject.

“Where there’s a doctor, there’s always a nurse,” she said.

Mr. Mac replied: “Let me check on that.”

He did and told Mrs. Church that she would need additional training, including physiology and scuba diving.

Mrs. Church enrolled at Washington University night school and took scuba lessons at the YMCA in Brentwood. She became the nurse to the first seven astronauts while they trained at the McDonnell facility. She accompanied them on some trips to Cape Canaveral, Fla.

She was on emergency standby at the compression chambers simulating space weightlessness while the astronauts trained.

“It wasn’t all emergency preparedness,” she told an interviewer. “I doubled as Den Mother and greeted Dick Gordon with his doughnut and another astronaut with his can of beer when they emerged, despite regulations.”

She was among the first to reach the scene in 1966 when two astronauts, Elliot See and Charles Bassett, died when their two-seat training jet crashed during bad weather into the building where the capsules were built.

On Feb. 20, 1962, Glenn orbited the earth in the Friendship 7 spacecraft. A few months later, McDonnell won the contract to build Gemini, the next-generation space vehicle.

Those were heady days at what was then Missouri’s largest employer. The astronauts were like rock stars and Mrs. Church had a front-row seat.

The third phase of space exploration was the Apollo project, to land an astronaut on the moon. When McDonnell didn’t win that contract, Mrs. Church left the company in 1967.

She became a swimming instructor and then a real estate agent. She gave talks about the space program, using two space suits that had somehow come into her possession. She later donated them to the Greater St. Louis Air and Space Museum in Cahokia.

Mrs. Church was born in Central Falls, R.I., the second-youngest of eight children. Her father, an immigrant from Syria, was a house painter.

After high school, she graduated from Boston City Hospital Nursing School and then worked in the emergency room at Boston City Hospital.

She married William Thomas Church, a senior conductor with the Missouri Pacific Railroad, and they moved to St. Louis in 1946. They divorced in 1958.

She remained a Realtor until several years ago. She was a gourmet cook, traveling to France for lessons.

“I’m not retired,” she told the Post-Dispatch last year.

She remained a staunch supporter of the space program. During talks to civic groups, she was nearly always asked to explain how the astronauts went to the bathroom in space.

She didn’t believe in barriers, said her son, William Church of Stuart, Fla. “She believed anything was possible.”

A funeral Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Saturday at St. Anselm Parish, 530 South Mason Road, Creve Coeur, followed by a celebration of her life at the Parish House.

Survivors, in addition to her son, include four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Michael Sorkin is a reporter at the Post-Dispatch.

Follow him on Facebook.

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