Cape Canaveral, control center dedicated to Rocco Petrone

Aug 09, 2021 952

BY: Enzo Quaratino

From Kennedy to von Braun, from Johnson to Debus, among the protagonists of the historical adventure that brought man to the Moon 42 years ago, there was one who had a decisive role, as director of the launch and later responsible for the entire Apollo program. His name was Rocco Petrone, and, as his very Italian name tells us, he was the son of a couple of emigrants who arrived in America in the 1920's from Sasso di Castalda, a small mountain town in the province of Potenza.

His role of excellence in the American space activities finds now a further recognition in the decision to name the control center of the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral after Rocco Petrone, who died in 2006, as communicated to the Association of former NASA employees by the new director of the space center Janet Petro. The request to name the control center - which was built by Petrone and his formidable team of about 500 engineers - after the engineer of Lucanian origin was made by the association of former employees, including some former collaborators still alive, during the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission.

Remained a bit in the shadows - perhaps by choice of the same protagonist who preferred the endless meetings with engineers and technicians of his team to microphones and cameras - the figure of Rocco Petrone, absolute protagonist in the space race, came out well after July 20, 1969, when the American astronauts planted the flag with stars and stripes on the lunar soil.

The journalist Renato Cantore told about him, his Italian origins, his life as a scientist and his appointment with the Moon that consigned him to history in the book "Dalla Terra alla Luna" (From the Earth to the Moon), published two years ago by Rubbettino: a biography of the "tiger of Cape Canaveral", as he was nicknamed. Born in Amsterdam, a small village in the State of New York, in 1926, where his parents had moved from Basilicata, Petrone was not yet six months old when his father died in a terrible accident, run over by a train.

At the age of 17, he was admitted to the military academy at West Point. Becoming an officer in the U.S. Army, he completed his studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was one of the leading experts on missiles and launch pads. Wanted at NASA by Baron von Braun, considered the founder of the American space program, he worked on the construction of the Saturn V and the legendary launch pad 39 from which astronauts left for the Moon. Then he was promoted to director of the Apollo program. With him it was forbidden to make mistakes or, worse, to digress.

Famous were his walks through the control room forty minutes before the launch to check that everyone's concentration was at its maximum even after hours of work, legendary his outbursts, proverbial his check-lists, the checks that everyone was required to perform with extreme care in the long months of preparation for the launches: only the one on the lunar module included 30 thousand operations. It was him, on July 16, 1969, to give the "go" to the mission that brought the man on the Moon. At the peak of his career, he became the number three at NASA, which he left in 1975. He died at the age of eighty in Palos Verdes Estates, a coastal town in California, where he had retired to devote himself to his studies on the American Civil War.


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