THE FORGOTTEN GUIDING FORCE BEHIND APOLLO 11
How a scientist named “Rocky” led America to greatness
In all of the well-deserved hoopla over the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing—one of the most monumental events in human history—a man who literally guided the entire mission is absent from view: Dr. Rocco Petrone, an engineering pioneer and director of its launch operation.
Unlike Sylvester Stallone’s likable, punch-drunk movie hero, this “Rocky” wasn’t a fictional character; rather, he was a West Point graduate, played football on its championship team, and earned a Master’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Petrone joined NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) in 1960 and worked his way up to director of launch operations at the Kennedy Center in 1966. As the first native-born American to take over the program, Petrone was at the control panel with his predecessor, the German-born Wernher von Braun, who developed the Saturn 5 rocket. Under Petrone’s steady, steely hand, the Saturn 5 successfully launched Neil A. Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins into the stratosphere on July 12th, 1969—and into the annals of world history.
Though a sober scientist, Petrone did have a sense of humor, evidenced by his famous quote afterward: “I’d have to say that you could feel the tension,” he said, referring to the lift-off. “(Everyone) knew this was the big one. There was a certain amount of, let’s say, static electricity in the air.”
Petrone left NASA in 1975 but his career didn’t end there: As an executive at Rockwell International, Dr. Petrone advised against the ill-fated Challenger mission of 1986, expressing concern over potential weather damage. Sadly, Petrone’s prediction proved correct: The Challenger exploded shortly after take-off, killing all members on-board, including the first teacher recruited to fly in space, Christa McCauliffe.
Speaking of Sylvester Stallone, the actor once told a British “chat show” host that he turned down the role of Han Solo in “Star Wars” (true–he was considered but the role eventually went to Harrison Ford). He joked that the idea of an Italian in space was silly: “What’s he gonna do, deliver pizzas”?
An Italian named Galileo Galilei is considered the father of modern science. An Italian American, Michael Massimino, led the fourth Space Hubble Mission in 2002. An Italian woman, Samantha Cristoforetti, holds the record for the longest uninterrupted space flight by a European astronaut, male or female. After Russia and then the United States, the third nation to successfully launch a satellite was Italy (1964).
And, back home on U.S. soil, an American engineer with a proud Italian surname watched along with his fellow Americans as three of our own took “one small step for man, and one giant leap for mankind.” -BDC