T. J. O'Malley
|T. J. O'Malley|
O'Malley at the Complex 14 launch console
|Born||October 15, 1915
Montclair, New Jersey
|Died||November 6, 2009
Cape Canaveral Hospital,
Cocoa Beach, Florida
Thomas Joseph O'Malley (October 15, 1915–November 6, 2009), better known as T. J. O'Malley, was an Irish-American aerospace engineer who, as chief test conductor for the Convair division of General Dynamics, was responsible for pushing the button on February 20, 1962 launching the Mercury-Atlas 6 space flight carrying astronaut John Glenn, the first American in orbit. Five years later, NASA asked North American Aviation to hire him as director of launch operations to help get the Apollo program back on track after the Apollo 1 command module fire on the launch pad killed three astronauts. O'Malley continued to play a leadership role in the United States' space program through the first space shuttle launch in 1981.
O'Malley was born in 1915 to parents who emigrated from Ireland to Montclair, New Jersey, and he lived there until 1944. In 1936 he earned a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering at the Newark College of Engineering (now the New Jersey Institute of Technology). Anne Arneth O’Malley became his wife in 1944, and they remained married for 65 years until his death.
Wright Aeronautical in Paterson, New Jersey, the aircraft manufacturing division of Curtiss-Wright Corporation, was O'Malley's first aviation employer. In 1958, he joined General Dynamics and worked as a test engineer for their Convair division on the SM-65 Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile. In 1961, the Atlas was the only rocket in the United States' inventory with sufficient thrust to launch a manned Mercury space capsule into orbit, and Convair was contracted to adapt it for this purpose. After two failed launches of the Atlas carrying an unmanned Mercury capsule, O'Malley was given the task of preparing the Atlas for orbital spaceflight before the end of 1961, because the Soviet Union had already carried out manned orbital missions that year. On September 13, 1961, five months after the last failed launch, the Atlas boosted an unmanned Mercury capsule on an orbital flight.
On the morning of February 20, 1962, O'Malley was directing the General Dynamics launch team from the windowless blockhouse just a few hundred yards from Pad 14 at Cape Canaveral where John Glenn sat atop the Atlas rocket in Friendship 7. O'Malley methodically worked through the checklist, finally announcing over the intercom, "T-minus 18 seconds and counting, engine start", as he pressed the black button on his console that began the firing sequence of the Atlas rocket. In response, his boss, astronautics base manager Byron MacNabb, seated in Mercury Control, said, "May the wee ones be with you, Thomas", a good luck reference to the leprechauns of Irish mythology. O'Malley made the Sign of the Cross, and said, "Good Lord ride all the way", just before backup astronaut Scott Carpenter, also seated in the blockhouse, made his iconic remark, "Godspeed, John Glenn!" As the countdown clock reached zero, the Mercury-Atlas rocket lifted off at 9:47 a.m. EST, carrying the first American astronaut into orbit. O'Malley had that black button mounted on a piece of varnished wood as a souvenir, which he continued to proudly display into retirement. On March 4, 1962, O'Malley appeared on the CBS-TV game show, What's My Line?.
During the Gemini program, O'Malley remained with General Dynamics working on the Atlas-Agena. O'Malley often went to work at Launch Complex 14 while it was still dark. The road along the launch pads had no street lights so O'Malley complained that it was hard to find the turn to Pad 14 in the dark. A streetlight was installed for him at the entrance to Pad 14, which illuminated contunually until his death. It was named "O'Malley's Guiding Light".
A promotion to senior manager in the Electric Boat division took him away from the space program in 1966. On January 27, 1967 the Apollo 1 command module fire at Launch Complex 34 killed astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger B. Chaffee. North American Aviation built the command module, and had to make organizational changes as well as design modifications as a result of the fatal accident. By May 1967 a new management team was taking shape, and Bastian "Buzz" Hello, who took over operations at then-Cape Kennedy for North American, hired O'Malley as director of command module launch operations.
In 1970, O’Malley became vice president and general manager of launch operations for North American Rockwell, where he was responsible for Rockwell's work on Skylab and the Apollo–Soyuz Test Project. He subsequently worked on the Space Shuttle program, leading up to its first launch in April 1981, a few months before his retirement.
O'Malley died of pneumonia in a Cocoa Beach, Florida hospital on November 6, 2009 at the age of 94.
- NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal, 1969, 1974
- NASA Public Service Group Achievement Award, 1973
- New Jersey Aviation Hall of Fame Inductee, 1996
In popular culture
The tape recording of O'Malley and Scott Carpenter from the John Glenn launch was used on "My Star", a track by British rock singer Ian Brown. The record made the UK Top 5 Singles Chart in January 1998.
- Siceloff, Steve (2009-11-13). "Famed Engineer O'Malley Dies at age 94". NASA News & Features. Retrieved 2009-11-14. "O'Malley is perhaps best known as the man who pushed the button to launch the Atlas rocket that carried astronaut John Glenn into orbit on Feb. 20, 1962."
- Hevesi, Dennis (2009-11-12). "Thomas J. O'Malley, 1915-2009: Engineer helped launch John Glenn's historic orbit flight". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-11-15. "Thomas J. O'Malley, the aviation engineer who pushed the button that launched the rocket that carried John Glenn into orbit in 1962, and who five years later played a major role in reviving the Apollo moon program after a launch-pad fire killed three astronauts, died Nov. 6 in Cocoa Beach, Florida"
- "Thomas J. O’Malley". Montclair Times (New Jersey). 2009-11-13. Retrieved 2009-11-13. "In 1962, when an Atlas rocket carried John Glenn into space, for the first orbit of the Earth by an American astronaut, Mr. O’Malley pushed the button to launch it."[dead link]
- "Encore.(NASA employee Thomas O'Malley who oversaw John Glenn's first space mission in 1962)(Brief Article)". World of Hibernia. accessmylibrary. 1998-12-22. Retrieved 2009-11-14. "At T-Minus-18 seconds, O'Malley activated the Atlas rocket and immediately moved his hand to a red button that could deploy an escape tower should anything go wrong in the last few moments before launch."
- Barbree, Jay (2007). Live from Cape Canaveral: covering the space race, from sputnik to today. New York: Smithsonian Books/Collins. pp. 67, 132. ISBN 0-06-123392-7. "[Mercury Operations Director Walt] Williams went after the air force, who held the Atlas contract with NASA, and the job of setting things right went to the toughest test conductor around, a hulking six-foot-one Irish altar boy by the name of Thomas J. O'Malley."
- Burgess, Colin; Kate Doolan; with Bert Vis; (2003). Fallen Astronauts: Heroes who Died Reaching for the Moon. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. pp. 141–144. ISBN 0-8032-6212-4. " 'May the wee ones be with you, Thomas,' came the quiet voice of General Dynamics' astronautics base manager, Byron MacNabb, seated in Mercury Control."
- Wilford, John Noble (1998-10-28). "At Cape Canaveral, Reliving the Grand Highs of '62". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-11-15. "Tape recordings caught his words at that moment. 'May the good Lord ride all the way,' Mr. O'Malley said. Mr. Carpenter, in the blockhouse to handle communications between the ground and Mr. Glenn, followed with the famous benediction, 'Godspeed, John Glenn.' "
- Murray, Charles (1989). Apollo, the Race to the Moon. New York: Simon and Schuster. p. 232. ISBN 0-671-61101-1. "By 1967, Thomas J. O'Malley had been working at the Cape for ten years."
- "APPENDIX A: National Aeronautics and Space Administration Honor Awards". SP-4012 NASA Historical Data Book: Volume IV. Retrieved 2009-11-13.