ASK OCE — November 3, 2006 — Vol. 1, Issue 15
Remembering a Leader from Apollo
Rocco A. Petrone, 80, an Apollo-era NASA executive known for his toughness and drive to see NASA succeed, died August 24, 2006 at his home in Palos Verdes Estates, CA.
Mr. Petrone, who truly believed that spaceflight could serve toward the betterment of humanity, was a tireless worker and promoter of NASA and the manned spaceflight program in particular. Upon his retirement from NASA, he said:
"I see man in the program as the essential element of adventure and discovery that we need. You start talking about adventure and discovery and anyone who tells you what’s going to come out of it has got to be a fool to try, because out of discovery man has moved from the caves to where he is today, and we ain’t finished moving. I look upon all those things out there (in space) as challenges, put there by someone for us to try to understand, and in trying to understand, we're going to be better." (Los Angeles Times, April 23, 1975)
Mr. Petrone graduated from West Point in 1946 and attained the rank of Lieutenant Colonel during his career in the U.S. Army. He received a master's degree in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1951 and began working as a mechanical engineer working on the Redstone ballistic missile system. In 1960, the army loaned Mr. Petrone to NASA, where he worked as Saturn Project Officer focusing on the development and construction of the Saturn launch system. He retired from the army in 1966 and joined NASA as Director of Launch Operations at the Kennedy Spaceflight Center, a position he held until September 1969, when he was appointed Apollo Program Director at NASA Headquarters.
During his time with Apollo Mr. Petrone was instrumental in all aspects of the missions. He worked tirelessly on quality control and held his people to the highest level of standards. He took the Apollo I fire and the loss of the three astronauts particularly hard. His toughness earned him the respect and dedication of his people. His longtime colleague and friend Jim Odom, who went on to become Associate Administrator for Space Station, recalls Mr. Petrone as "a very intense person. He could be demanding, but fair." Mr. Odom "thoroughly enjoyed working with him and for him because of those attributes." Axel Roth, who retired from NASA as the Marshall Spaceflight Center Associate Director, dates his interaction with Mr. Petrone back to 1961. He recalls Mr. Petrone as a "pretty hard task master" who "held people’s feet to the fire," noting that while "he may have been a tough task master, he was very fair."
The value of the work that Mr. Petrone and other engineers and designers contributed to the success of Apollo cannot be overstated. Dr. Roger Launius, Chair of the Division of Space History at the National Air and Space Museum says in regard to Mr. Petrone that "he was one of a band of brothers captured by the dream of spaceflight. While they didn't get to go themselves they are the ones who made it real."
While Mr. Petrone may not have been as famous as the Apollo astronauts, he was certainly known and respected within NASA and the aerospace community. The Washington Post
put him on a short list for the position of NASA Administrator at the beginning of both the Carter and Reagan administrations.
Mr. Petrone ended his Apollo career as the Program Director for the NASA component of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. On January 26, 1973, he became Center Director for the Marshall Spaceflight Center. This move brought his career full-circle to where he started in 1952 at the Redstone Arsenal. This time his reputation preceded him. In the announcement of his appointment on January 24, 1973, The Huntsville Times
noted that "'The Rock' is what some of his associates call Rocco Petrone. It is a sobriquet that is much more a reflection of solid dependability than a mere play on a name."
He left Marshall in March 1974 and returned to Headquarters to become NASA's Associate Administrator — the third-highest position in the agency. He retired from NASA in April 1975 at the age of 46. Even though he left the agency at a young age, Mr. Odom notes that "he was an extremely strong proponent of NASA throughout his career."
Rocco Anthony Petrone was born March 31, 1926, in Amsterdam, NY, the son of Italian immigrants. He was proud of his Italian heritage, and in February 1973 the Italian Government conferred on him one of its highest honors — the Commander of the Order of Merit. The Italian Ambassador noted that "his government was especially proud that a man of Italian descent had been a leader in the Apollo program" (Los Angeles Times
, Sunday February 11, 1973).
He is survived by his wife of 50 years, Ruth Holley Petrone; four children Michael, Theresa, Nancy, and Kathryn; a brother; and a half-brother.