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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. Five years later, NASAmarker 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. He continued to play a leadership role in the United States' space program through the first launch of the Space Shuttle in 1981.

Early life

O'Malley was born in 1915 to parents who emigrated from Ireland to Montclair, New Jerseymarker, 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 Technologymarker). Anne Arneth O’Malley became his wife in 1944, and they remained married for 65 years until his death.

Career

Wright Aeronautical in Paterson, New Jerseymarker, 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 Unites 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 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. 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 yards from pad 14marker at Cape Canaveralmarker 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. ET, 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.

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, until 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 34marker 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.

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. He subsequently worked on the Space Shuttle program, leading up to the Space Shuttle Columbia first launch in 1981, a few months before his retirement.

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