“Is it possible that in 1943, in the middle of the Second World War, when many Italian Americans preferred to change their surname to hide their origin, a young man who bore a name that couldn’t be more Italian was admitted to the Military Academy at West Point? Yes it is. This was and is the America of great opportunities...”.
This was exactly what was happening on the other side of the world, when the “factory” that produces the best intelligence in the American army opened its doors to an Italian: Rocco Petrone (1926-2006). The story recounted by journalist Renato Cantore in his book Dalla Terra alla Luna, Rocco Petrone, l’Italiano dell’Apollo 11 (published in Italy by Rubbettino) might seem one of the many ordinary tales of emigration from Italy. The book also inspired the documentary, Luna italiana, directed by Marco Spagnoli and produced by Istituto Luce-Cinecittà for A+E Networks Italia, sponsored by the Italian Space Agency with the collaboration of Nasa, which contains the testimonies of Tito Stagno, Piero Angela, Oscar Cosulich, astrophysicist Amedeo Balbi, and aerospace engineer Roberto Somma, amongst others. The story of Rocco Petrone, however, is one of those that undoubtedly changed the course of humanity because “we would never have reached the Moon in time or, perhaps, we would never have got there without Rocco Petrone”: wrote Isom A. “Ike” Rigell, chief engineer of the Kennedy Space Center launch operations in Florida.
And exactly half a century after man set foot on the Moon, on the day celebrations were held, July 20th this year, came another mission: “Beyond”. In command of the ISS, the International Space Station, an important orbital outpost for looking “beyond” open space, returning to the Moon and aiming for Mars, is another Italian, ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano, who remained in orbit until February 6th.
This will be another story to tell, but we need to start by retracing the life of Rocco Petrone, a son of immigrants from Lucania, and consider his vital contribution. He was the man who directed the launch of the Apollo 11 from Cape Kennedy on July 16, 1969: the “go!” man of the mission that took the first men to the Moon.
The son of Lucanian peasants from Sasso di Castalda, a village a few miles from Potenza, who sought fortune in America, was born in Amsterdam, New York, in 1926. Brought to Nasa by Wernher von Braun, he worked on the construction of Saturn V and the legendary launch pad 39, from which the astronauts left for the Moon. He was subsequently promoted to Director of the Apollo program and, at the height of his career, he became the number three at Nasa.
“So, for starters, give me Rocco Petrone”, said Von Brown when he agreed to take up the challenge and “beat the Soviets in the race to conquer space”. “His slightly taciturn nature, reservedness, iron discipline learned in one of the biggest armies in the world”, but above all“his technical skill, great photographic memory, tenacity and impressive resistance to stress and tiredness” made Rocco Petrone “the “go!” man”, “responsible for launch operations, i.e. virtually everything that happened in this extraordinary theater of history”.