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Thomas J. O'Malley

O'Malley (l) with John Glenn (c) and Paul Donnelly (r) in front of Friendship 7 spacecraft
Born October 15, 1915[1]
Montclair, New Jersey
Died November 6, 2009
Cape Canaveral Hospital,
Cocoa Beach, Florida
Occupation Aerospace Engineer

Thomas Joseph (T.J.) O'Malley (October 15, 1915 – November 6, 2009) was an Irish-American aerospace engineer who, as chief test conductor for the Convair division of General Dynamics, was responsible for pushing the button launching the Mercury-Atlas 6 rocket carrying American astronaut John Glenn into orbit on February 20, 1962.[1][2] 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.[2] He continued to play a leadership role in the United States' space program through the first launch of the Space Shuttle in 1981.[3]


Early life

O'Malley was born in 1915 to parents who emigrated from Ireland to Montclair, New Jersey, and he lived there until 1944.[4] In 1936 he earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at the Newark College of Engineering (now the New Jersey Institute of Technology).[1] Anne Arneth O’Malley became his wife in 1944, and they remained married for 65 years until his death.[2]


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.[3] In 1961, the Atlas was the only rocket in the Unites States' inventory with sufficient thrust to launch a manned Mercury space capsule into orbit,[5] and Convair was contracted to adapt it for this purpose.[2] After two previous 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.[5] On September 13, 1961, five months after the last failed launch, the Atlas boosted an unmanned Mercury capsule on an orbital flight.[5]

On the morning of February 20, 1962, O'Malley was directing the General Dynamics launch team from the windowless "blockhouse" just a few 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.[6] 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.[6] O'Malley made the Sign of the Cross,[5] 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!"[7] As the countdown clock reached zero, the Mercury-Atlas rocket lifted off at 9:47 a.m. ET, carrying the first American astronaut into orbit.[6] O'Malley had that black button mounted on a piece of varnished wood as a souvenir, which he continued to proudly display into retirement.[2][7]

O'Malley had his finger on the launch button for all the Mercury-Atlas launches during Project Mercury; during the Gemini Program, he remained with General Dynamics working on the Atlas-Agena,[8] until a promotion to senior manager in the Electric Boat division took him away from the space program in 1966.[5] 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 Cape Kennedy for North American, hired O'Malley as director of command module launch operations.[8][2]

In 1970, O’Malley became vice president and general manager of launch operations for North American Aviation, later Rockwell International, where he was responsible for Rockwell's work on Skylab and the Apollo–Soyuz Test Project.[1] He subsequently worked on the Space Shuttle program, leading up to the Space Shuttle Columbia first launch in 1981,[3] a few months before his retirement.[4]



  1. ^ a b c d 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."  
  2. ^ a b c d e f 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, Fla."  
  3. ^ a b c "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."  
  4. ^ a b "Encore.(NASA employee Thomas O'Malley who oversaw John Glenn's first space mission in 1962)(Brief Article)". World of Hibernia. accessmylibrary. 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."  
  5. ^ a b c d e 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."  
  6. ^ a b c 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."  
  7. ^ a b 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.' "  
  8. ^ a b Murray, Charles (1989). Apollo, the Race to the Moon. New York: Simon and Schuster. pp. 232. ISBN 0671611011. "By 1967, Thomas J. O'Malley had been working at the Cape for ten years."  
  9. ^ a b "APPENDIX A: National Aeronautics and Space Administration Honor Awards". SP-4012 NASA Historical Data Book: Volume IV. Retrieved 2009-11-13.  


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