Thursday, November 12, 2009

Deceased--Thomas J. O’Malley

Thomas J. O’Malley
October 8th, 1915 to November 6th, 2009

"Thomas J. O’Malley, Who Helped Launch Glenn Into Orbit, Dies at 94"


Dennis Hevesi

November 12th, 2009

The New York Times

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 launching-pad fire killed three astronauts, died Friday in Cocoa Beach, Fla. He was 94 and lived in Cocoa Beach.

The cause was pneumonia, his daughter, Kathleen O’Malley, said.

At the height of the cold war, with the United States still reeling from the haunting beep-beep-beep of Sputnik — the first artificial satellite, launched into space by the Soviet Union in 1957 — Mr. O’Malley was sent to Cape Canaveral by his company, General Dynamics, as its leading test engineer.

The company’s Convair division had built the Atlas, an intercontinental ballistic missile, and then received a federal contract to convert it into a spacecraft capable of lifting astronauts into orbit. Too often, to the further frustration of America’s space dreams, the Atlas had blown up on the launching pad. The company feared it would lose the contract.

Mr. O’Malley was “Convair’s toughest test conductor,” the astronauts Alan B. Shepard Jr. and Deke Slayton wrote in their history of the space program, “Moon Shot” (Turner Publishing, 1994). He “took no lip from anyone” and created a team that was “anxious to work day and night and turn the Atlas into a fine piece of reliable machinery,” they wrote.

In an interview with The New York Times in 2007, Mr. O’Malley said, “We had one goal: to get something up there as soon as possible.”

On the morning of Feb. 20, 1962, Mr. O’Malley pressed the button that fired the Atlas booster rockets and sent Mr. Glenn on his way to becoming the first American to orbit the Earth.

Tape recordings caught Mr. O’Malley’s words at that moment: “May the good Lord ride all the way.”

Five years later Mr. O’Malley was summoned again to handle a difficult situation. On Jan. 27, 1967, three astronauts — Virgil I. Grissom, who was known as Gus, Edward H. White II and Roger B. Chaffee Jr. — were killed when fire engulfed their Apollo command module during a training exercise on the launching pad.

The command module had been built by North American Aviation. NASA officials recommended that Mr. O’Malley, who was still working for General Dynamics, be hired by North American as its new director of command module launch operations. The command module is the vehicle that carries the crew to and from the vicinity of the Moon, as opposed to the lunar module, which lands on the Moon.

“There were all sorts of recriminations after the fire,” John Tribe, who worked closely with Mr. O’Malley, said in an interview on Tuesday, “and NASA knew what Tom could do.”

A new command module, incorporating a raft of safety modifications, was built at the North American Aviation plant in Downey, Calif. “Tom was responsible for setting up the operation in Florida that prepared all the equipment, putting the propellants on board, checking it all out — a complex operation,” said Mr. Tribe, who later became chief engineer for the Boeing-Rockwell Company. “We were working seven days a week, 24 hours a day, evaluating and tracking every task.”

“He was a big guy,” Mr. Tribe added. “He could intimidate people, be foulmouthed; but, by golly, he led.”

On Oct. 11, 1968, Apollo 7, the first manned mission in the Apollo program, was launched. It orbited the Earth for 11 days.

Thomas Joseph O’Malley was born on Oct. 8, 1915, in Montclair, N.J., to Thomas and Alice Martin O’Malley. He earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1936 from the Newark College of Engineering, now the New Jersey Institute of Technology, and first worked in aviation at the Wright Aeronautical Corporation in Paterson, N.J. He joined General Dynamics in 1958.

Besides his daughter, Mr. O’Malley is survived by his wife of 65 years, the former Anne Arneth; two sons, Thomas Jr. and James; three sisters, Winifred Dean, Eileen Lohr and Dorothy Ihde; three grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Memorabilia from the early days of the space age surrounded Mr. O’Malley at his home in Cocoa Beach, not far from the launching pads. Mounted on a piece of varnished wood was the black starter button from the 1962 Glenn flight.

At Cape Canaveral, a plaque bolted to the base of a streetlight on the road leading to Pad 14, the site of the Glenn launching, reads, “O’Malley’s Guiding Light.”

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