Thomas J. O'Malley, Dead at 94, Sent Glenn Into Space
In a photo taken on Jan. 24, 1962, Thomas J. O'Malley, left, and John Glenn sit in front of the Friendship 7 capsule that carried Glenn into an orbit around Earth that February, becoming the first American to do so. O'Malley hit the button that launched Glenn's rocket, and he kept it on display in his Cocoa Beach home.
Credit: 1962 NASA file

COCOA BEACH, Fla. ? Legendary space industry engineer Thomas J. O'Malley, 94, died Friday evening, shortly after a phone call from Mercury astronaut and former U.S. Sen. John Glenn, whom O'Malley launched into space in 1962 by pushing a button.

O'Malley had displayed the button in the den of his Cocoa Beach home.

Daughter Kathleen O'Malley said the conversation between Glenn and her father on Friday was brief, but she related hearing O'Malley say, "Hello, John Glenn," to the former astronaut.

He was called to the human spaceflight program in 1961, while working for the Convair division of General Dynamics, where he was a test engineer for the Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile, according to family historian Cornelia Dean, O'Malley's niece. The Atlas missile had experienced a series of launch pad explosions.

He was "Convair's toughest test conductor," Mercury astronauts Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton wrote in "Moon Shot" in 1994.

Astronauts remember O'Malley's contributions to the success of the U.S. space program.

"He was a hard-driving, honest, straight-up, go-for-broke guy, and he really made things hum down here," Apollo 15 astronaut Al Worden said Saturday while attending the Astronaut Autograph and Memorabilia Show at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

"Everybody knew Tommy, and everybody respected him, and everybody did what Tommy wanted done," Worden said. "I think he was a big factor in the success of the Apollo program."

Out of love and respect, O'Malley was nicknamed "Terrible Tommy," Worden said.

"We would have not gone anywhere as well as we did down here in the 1960s and 1970s if it hadn't been for Tommy O'Malley," he added. "I've seen him be really tough, but on the other hand, he was the most fun guy I ever met."

After working in the Mercury program, O'Malley became chief project engineer for the Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics in Quincy, Mass. In 1967, after a launch pad fire killed three Apollo I astronauts, he was brought back to Cape Canaveral to head checkout and launch operations for the Apollo spacecraft for North American Aviation.

Apollo 13 astronaut Fred Haise said O'Malley's drive and work ethic kept America's fledgling space program on track.

"There was a lot of schedule pressure to get spacecraft through the mill here and to get them ready to go fly," Haise said. "He was a tough taskmaster, which you had to be in those days.

"It was a hectic time, and I think Tom was a good leader. He kept everything in order."

In 1970, O'Malley became vice president and general manager of launch operations for North American Aviation, which later became Rockwell International. In that position, he led the company's work on Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz missions, as well as on the shuttle program, in which his work led to the first launch of Columbia in 1981.

O'Malley was born in Montclair, N.J., and earned a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering at the Newark College of Engineering, now the New Jersey Institute of Technology, in 1936. He first worked in aviation at the Wright Aeronautical Corp. in Paterson, N.J., the aircraft manufacturing division of the Curtiss-Wright Corp., before joining General Dynamics in 1958.

Dean recounts this anecdote: "An early riser, O'Malley frequently arrived at Cape Canaveral launch pads and other facilities before dawn. Often, he would get lost in the dark, virtually featureless sandy landscape of the Cape -- until his colleagues installed a streetlight at the road leading to pad 14, the site of the Glenn launch. A plaque at the base reads 'O'Malley's Guiding Light.' "

O'Malley is survived by his wife, Anne Arneth O'Malley; his daughter, Kathleen O'Malley of Merritt Island; his sons, Thomas J. Jr. of Cocoa Beach and James K. O'Malley of Merritt Island; three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

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