Rocco Petrone, 80; Engineer Played Key Role in NASA’s Apollo Missions to the Moon

Times Staff Writer

Rocco Petrone, who played a key role in NASA’s Apollo program to place men on the moon, died Aug. 24 at his home in Palos Verdes Estates from complications of heart disease and diabetes. He was 80.

An Army engineer on loan to NASA, Petrone helped develop the Saturn rocket that played a crucial role in the Apollo missions.

As director of launch operations at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, he oversaw all phases of the program and was responsible for every spacecraft component used in it.


After the Apollo program ended, he became director of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., where he was in charge of the team that rescued the 1973 Skylab mission after it was damaged during liftoff.

In a later incarnation as head of shuttle programs at Rockwell International, he recommended against the Jan. 28, 1986, launch of the shuttle Challenger -- a recommendation that was tragically ignored.

In the early stages of the Apollo program, Petrone oversaw the construction of the massive Vehicle Assembly Building -- large enough to hold four fully assembled Saturn rockets -- and other facilities at the space center, including the giant crawlers that carried Saturn rockets and shuttles to the launchpad.

As the program evolved, he became the ultimate arbiter of day-to-day operations during each of the “five-month marathons” preceding launches.

Ever a stickler for details, he became even more unrelenting after the 1967 launchpad fire that killed astronauts Virgil Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chafee.

Retired NASA manager Humboldt C. Mandell Jr. recalled a meeting at which Petrone questioned a young engineer who worked for a contractor. Unsure of himself, the engineer made the mistake of trying to bluff Petrone.


Mandell said Petrone physically removed the engineer from the podium and told the man’s boss to take his place, ordering that the engineer be permanently removed from the program.

“Brutal? Maybe, but it all made us know our subjects thoroughly from then on,” Mandell told the Washington Post.

An exceptionally private man who managed to stay far from the limelight, Petrone nevertheless became well-known for guiding visiting presidents, congressmen and other dignitaries through the space center, explaining NASA’s work in clear and lucid terms.

His contacts served him well when he moved to Washington, D.C., in 1969 to become Apollo program director.

He was an effective liaison to politicians during the 1970 Apollo 13 crisis, explaining to them what was being done to return the astronauts after an explosion two days into the mission.

After a short stint in private industry, Petrone returned to NASA as director of the Marshall Space Flight Center, where he had begun his career 20 years earlier working on the Redstone rocket.

Unfortunately, the Apollo program was winding down, NASA’s budget was falling sharply, and he was forced to fire or lay off a large number of Marshall employees -- an episode that left bitter memories among many.

During the May 14, 1973, launch of the Skylab orbiting laboratory, a small explosion ripped off a shield designed to protect the laboratory from micrometeorites and destroyed one of the solar panel arrays, leaving the space station grossly underpowered. As a result, temperatures inside the craft soared.

Petrone was in charge of a team at Marshall that worked around the clock to design and build a large umbrella that could be deployed through an access port in the station to provide shade and cooling. The shield was completed in time for the first crew launch on May 25.

After being promoted to associate administrator of NASA, Petrone retired in 1975 and ultimately moved to California to join Rockwell’s shuttle program.

On the morning of Challenger’s scheduled launch, Petrone contacted Rockwell representatives at Kennedy and told them that he didn’t think the shuttle should fly that day because of the large ice buildup on the launchpad.

His concerns were forwarded to NASA officials, but they later testified that they did not view this as a “no-go” order from Rockwell and they proceeded with the launch. The ice proved not to be a problem. Instead, the cold weather shrank rubber joints on the solid fuel booster rockets, allowing fire to escape and ignite the main fuel tank, destroying Challenger.

Petrone retired from Rockwell in 1989.

Rocco Anthony Petrone was born March 31, 1926, to Italian immigrants in Amsterdam, N.Y., near Schenectady. His father, who worked on the railroad, died on the job when Rocco was a baby and his mother eventually remarried.

Young Petrone, who delivered ice to help his mother make ends meet, won a scholarship to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Tall and broad-shouldered, he played tackle on the national championship football team that featured Heisman Trophy winners Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis.

After graduation in 1946, he received a master’s degree in electrical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Intensely devoted to his work, he had few outside interests other than reading, said his wife of 50 years, Ruth Holley Petrone.

After his retirement, she said, “he spent a lot of time at the library,” where he nurtured his interest in the Civil War.

In addition to his wife, Petrone is survived by a brother, John, of Pittsburgh; a half-brother, Anthony Scaccia of Oneonta, N.Y.; and four children, Teresa of Charlotte, N.C., Nancy of Atlanta, Kathryn Posey of Atlanta and Michael of Palos Verdes Estates.