Rocco Petrone, 80; Helped Lead Moon Missions

Rocco A. Petrone, left, then Apollo program director, and Chester M. Leo, mission director, monitor a launch test.
Rocco A. Petrone, left, then Apollo program director, and Chester M. Leo, mission director, monitor a launch test. (1972 Nasa Photo)
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 31, 2006

Rocco A. Petrone, 80, a demanding NASA executive who played crucial administrative roles during the Apollo manned spaceflights to the moon, died Aug. 24 at home in Palos Verdes Estates, Calif. He had a heart ailment and diabetes.

Mr. Petrone worked on the Redstone ballistic missile early in his career as an Army mechanical engineer. He came to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 1960 on loan from the Army. From what became Kennedy Space Center in Florida, he worked on construction and development of the Saturn launch rockets. The Saturn rockets were instrumental to the Apollo lunar missions.

As director of Kennedy's launch operations from 1966 to 1969, Mr. Petrone was responsible for every spacecraft component from its arrival at the launchpad until takeoff.

The peak achievement of this period came in July 1969 with the moon landing of Apollo 11. He also was present during the 1967 capsule fire aboard what is often called Apollo 1, and the deaths of the three astronauts had a lasting effect on Mr. Petrone's unremitting manner when it came to quality control, said Roger D. Launius, chairman of the space history division at the National Air and Space Museum.

Humboldt C. Mandell Jr., a retired NASA manager at Johnson Space Center in Houston, recalled in an e-mail a typical encounter with Mr. Petrone at the time: "NASA was grilling the contractor people on some program delays. Rocco was the one who was never content with an answer, and kept probing this one young contractor engineer, who quickly reached the limit of his knowledge.

"Instead of admitting it, he tried to bluff. Bad mistake. Rocco took him physically off of the podium, and told the young man's boss to take the podium. He also told the boss that the young man was to be removed from the program. Brutal? Maybe, but it made us all know our subjects thoroughly from then on."

Mr. Petrone was a towering man, a former football star at West Point, and he usually won arguments, even against superiors. Former NASA deputy administrator Robert C. Seamans Jr. said Mr. Petrone was particularly gifted at explaining the space agency's needs to visiting dignitaries, and this led to close relationships with political leaders.

When he asked for fresh batteries for Apollo 11 during launch testing, few others felt this expensive request was worthwhile. But Kennedy Space Center Director Kurt Debus got this reply from Washington: "If Petrone says he wants it that way, then do it that way."

In 1969, Mr. Petrone succeeded Air Force Gen. Samuel C. Phillips as Apollo program director in Washington. The next year, during the Apollo 13 crisis, Mr. Petrone was a liaison to politicians who wanted to know what had happened and what NASA was doing to bring Apollo 13's crew home safely.

In 1973, Mr. Petrone followed German-born rocket engineers Wernher von Braun and Eberhard Rees as director of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. Marshall develops spacecraft propulsion systems, but the end of the Apollo era brought a demand for huge staff cutbacks.

Mr. Petrone fired or reassigned many people during his year at Marshall and then ended his career in 1975 as NASA's associate administrator, the agency's third-ranking official.

After an interim with a private energy research group, Mr. Petrone was hired in 1981 by Rockwell International, a California-based defense contractor that built space shuttles. As chief of the space transportation and systems division, he oversaw shuttle design, testing, certification and manufacture.

The space shuttles had flown dozens of successful missions, but on the morning of Jan. 28, 1986, Mr. Petrone cautioned against that day's launch of the shuttle Challenger. His chief objection, overridden by space agency officials, was that subfreezing weather the previous night could have damaged the Challenger's thermal protection tiles.

Seven astronauts were killed on the Challenger when it exploded shortly after takeoff. Subsequent findings showed that the disaster resulted not from ice, but instead from the cold-induced failure of the safety seals known as O-rings within the solid rocket boosters, the two gigantic thrusters that lift the shuttle.

Rocco Anthony Petrone was born March 31, 1926, in Amsterdam, N.Y., a town near Schenectady where his Italian immigrant parents settled. His father, a railroad laborer, died in a work-related accident when Rocco was a baby. His mother, who worked in a glove factory, remarried.

Mr. Petrone, who delivered ice to help support his family, won an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He played tackle on a national championship football team with two Heisman Trophy winners, Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis.

Mr. Petrone graduated from West Point in 1946 and received a master's degree in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1951. He rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel before retiring from the Army in 1966.

Survivors include his wife of 50 years, Ruth Holley Petrone of Palos Verdes Estates; four children, Michael Petrone of Palos Verdes Estates, Teresa Petrone of Charlotte, and Nancy Petrone and Kathryn Posey, both of Atlanta; a brother; and a half brother.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company