Thomas Joseph O'Malley: Nasa engineer who oversaw the first US manned space flight

Thomas Joseph O'Malley, a Nasa engineer who pushed the button that sent the first US manned space flight into orbit in 1962, died of pneumonia on 6 November in a Florida hospital, shortly after a phone call from the former Mercury astronaut and former US Senator, John Glenn.

A turning point in the Cold War came on 4 October 1957, when the Soviet Union announced the successful launch of Sputnik 1, the first Earth-orbiting artificial satellite. This was followed by Sputnik II on 3 November, when the Soviets launched a dog into space. The United States had believed itself to be the world leader in space technology and thus the leader in missile development. The haunting beep, beep, beep of Sputnik and the US's first launch failures had left the Americans reeling. They did achieve a successful launch on 17 March, 1958, with Vanguard I, which became the fourth artificial satellite in space and the first satellite to be solar powered. After the initial public shock – the CIA and President Eisenhower had been aware of an impending Soviet launch – the Space Race really began.

On 12 April 1961, the US received another blow when the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in outer space and the first to orbit the Earth. In addition, the Atlas rocket, charged with the job of taking the Americans into space, experienced a series of launch-pad explosions. General Dynamics, who were making the rockets, feared it would lose the contract. The Americans had to respond – and quickly.

Thomas O'Malley, known as T.J., was sent by his company, General Dynamics, to the human space flight programme at Cape Canaveral in 1961, while working for the company's Convair division, where he was the leading test engineer for the Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile. It was the Convair division that had built the Atlas and then received a federal contract to convert it into a spacecraft capable of lifting astronauts into orbit.

O'Malley wanted to make up for lost time and quickly established himself as a no-nonsense boss. The astronauts Alan B. Shepard Jr and Deke Slayton later recalled that he was "Convair's toughest test conductor and took no lip from anyone." He created a team "anxious to work day and night and turn the Atlas into a fine piece of reliable machinery." In an interview with The New York Times in 2007, O'Malley explained, "We had one goal: to get something up there as soon as possible." On 25 May 1961, the new president, John F. Kennedy, announced his support for a manned moon landing and subsequently more funding was made available.

Success came on the morning of 20 February 1962 when O'Malley pressed the button that fired the Atlas booster rockets on the Mercury-Atlas 6 mission and sent astronaut Lt. Col. John Glenn on his way to becoming the first American to orbit the Earth, aboard Friendship VII. Tape recordings caught O'Malley's words at that moment: "May the good Lord ride all the way". Glenn circled the globe three times during a flight that lasted 4 hours 55 minutes. O'Malley was later given the starter button as a memento of the occasion.

Somewhat surprisingly, following this success, O'Malley went back to General Dynamics to be chief project engineer for the Electric Boat Division, but this was only temporary. Five years later, he was summoned again to handle a difficult situation following the death of three astronauts. On 27 January 1967, Virgil I. Grissom, Edward H. White II and Roger B. Chaffee Jr were killed when fire engulfed their Apollo I command module, 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. This occurred during a training exercise on the launch pad.

The command module had been built by North American Aviation. Nasa officials recommended that O'Malley, who was still working for General Dynamics, be hired by North American as its new director of command module launch operations. Following a complete overhaul of the command module, a new module was developed incorporating a raft of safety modifications. It was built at the North American Aviation plant in Downey, California. O'Malley was responsible for the complex operation in Florida that prepared all the equipment, putting the propellants on board and checking that everything actually functioned the way it ought to.

His former colleague, John Tribe, later chief engineer for the Boeing-Rockwell Company, recalled, "He was a big guy. He could intimidate people, be foul-mouthed; but, by golly, he led." The teams worked seven days a week, 24 hours a day, evaluating and tracking every task. Nothing could be left to chance.

On 11 October 1968, Apollo VII, the first manned mission in the Apollo programme, was launched. It orbited the Earth for 11 days. After the early Mercury missions, Nasa had moved on to the Gemini programme, and then the Apollo programme, which was to send man to the Moon. It achieved its goal during the Apollo XI mission on 20 July 1969 with the landing of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, with Michael Collins orbiting above.

Thomas O'Malley was born in Montclair, New Jersey on 8 October 1915 to Thomas and Alice Martin O'Malley. He attended the Newark College of Engineering (now the New Jersey Institute of Technology) where he obtained a Batchelor's degree in mechanical engineering in 1936. His first work in aviation was at the Wright Aeronautical Corporation in Paterson, New Jersey, the aircraft manufacturing division of the Curtiss-Wright Corporation, before joining General Dynamics in 1958.

In 1970 O'Malley became vice-president and general manager of launch operations for North American Aviation, which later became Rockwell International. He led the company's work on the Skylab and the joint American-Soviet Apollo-Soyuz missions, as well as the Space Shuttle programme, where his efforts culminated in the successful launching of the shuttle Columbia in 1981. Over the years he was the recipient of many honours and awards, ultimately receiving the Nasa Distinguished Service Medal.

Al Worden, the Apollo XV astronaut, noted, "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. I think he was a big factor in the success of the Apollo programme."

O'Malley 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.

Martin Childs

Thomas Joseph O'Malley, aviation engineer: born Montclair, New Jersey 8 October 1915; married 1944 Anne Arneth (two sons, one daughter); died Cape Canaveral, Florida 6 November 2009.