They may have been the most intense 18 seconds in the whole of American history. From the moment that flight controllers declared John Glenn’s capsule “GO” for flight, to the instant of lift-off, the hopes of an entire nation rode on the shoulders of two men: John Glenn and T. J. O’Malley, the Test Conductor who would press the button to fire Glenn into space.
Fifty years later, the audio recording of that moment in US history is worth listening to again. It is one of the most iconic tapes ever made in America, and it contains in those 18 seconds more Irish blarney than you would hear in an NYPD Precinct Station House on St. Patrick’s Day.
T. J. O’Malley was the archetypal Irish-American. His father, Thomas O’Malley, and his mother, Alice Martin, had emigrated to Montclair, N.J.. 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.,
which was by then distantly related to the famous Wright brothers. He joined General Dynamics in 1958, a company that traced its ancestry back to John Philip Holland of Liscannor, in County Clare, designer of the "Fenian Ram" submarine for the Fenian Brotherhood, and of the first Royal Navy submarine, the Holland 1.
At 9:47 a.m. on February 20th., 1962, T. J. O’Malley was in charge in the blockhouse of Launch Complex 14 at Cape Canaveral. At T-40 seconds, propellant-loading engineer Hank Croskeys noticed a blinking light indicating propellant in the Atlas rocket's liquid oxygen tank was exceeding specifications. The tank was made of very thin stainless steel and would collapse if not pressurised to precise levels.
Croskeys said, 'I've got a blink...' and got no further. O’Malley, a “steely-eyed missile guy”, made a fateful call: instead of cancelling the launch, he said “You are GO”.
His next words, as you will hear on the audio recording, were:"T-Minus 18 seconds and counting. Engine start," and at that moment he pressed the black launch button.
Then, often missed because it is so completely unexpected, we hear B.G. MacNabb (O’Malley’s boss at General Dynamics) say: "May the wee ones be with you, Thomas”.
O’Malley immediately responds with a prayer: "Good Lord, ride all the way".
Then comes astronaut Scott Carpenter's signature call: "Godspeed John Glenn!"
T. J. O’Malley was one of the heroes of the early American space programme. He was called back from other duties to help re-establish the Apollo moon programme after the disastrous Apollo 1 fire in 1967, after which he retired and lived out his life in Cocoa Beach, Florida. He died on November 6, 2009, at the age of 94 and is survived by his wife of 65 years, Anne Arneth, as well as a daughter, two sons, three sisters, three grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. One of the last people he spoke to on the day that he died was John Glenn.
Leo Enright, an award winning journalist, and is Chairman of the Irish Government's science awareness programme.