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Fifty years since the Moon landing

The story of Rocco Petrone, the Italian American who directed the Apollo 11 mission, is extremely relevant today with the Beyond expedition taking Italian Luca Parmitano into Space.

by Luigia Ierace
18 March 2020
10 min read
byLuigia Ierace
18 March 2020
10 min read

“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”.

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But why should we remember Rocco Petrone 50 years since the Moon landing? We discussed this with journalist Renato Cantone.

To begin with because he was so little known. The spotlights were all concentrated on the three astronauts  who stepped onto the Moon and all the work that led up to it was ignored. And Rocco Petrone was the head of the entire organization behind Cape Canaveral that led to the launch of Apollo 11 after 9 years of work. It was an extraordinary job with a team of tens of thousands of engineers led by Petrone.

Why is it important to make his story known today?

Because it is a story of emigration, welcome, talented people and recognition. A story about seemingly impossible enterprises. And therefore a story about optimism.

What remains of all this 50 years later?

Astonishingly I discovered that to this day, at Cape Canaveral, the launch procedures, the technique followed, with all the checks, the famous checks that must be made at each stage of the mission, are still those codified by Rocco Petrone. In short, 50 years later, the procedures are the same as they were then. And this is important because, after being forgotten for almost half a century, the history of the Apollo missions has come back to the fore now that America has decided to return to the Moon.

The ESA is preparing a Lunar mission in collaboration with Russia which is expected to take place as early as 2023. The mission involves landing a robotic probe to search for frozen water that scientists believe is located in the dark polar regions of the satellite.

It is certain now that man will return to the Moon. Other countries, including China, are also moving in this direction with human landings planned. It is therefore a very topical issue, particularly because, at the time, it was evident that the mission to the Moon was a race between Americans and Soviets, and that the scientific content of the mission was ultimately limited, to the point that in 1972 the Americans decided not to continue with the Apollo program.

But why have we decided to return to the Moon now?

Now, however, we understand how fundamental it is to return to the Moon for two reasons: first because not all of the moon has been explored. Rocco Petrone’s prediction is coming true: “The Moon could become the new Rosetta Stone for us. By exploring various points of its surface, which is not all the same, we hope to find ancient materials that could provide us with the code to understand the evolution of the solar system and to explain the mystery of the origin of man”. This is why we have to go back and explore it better, with means that allow us to travel further. The vehicles used 50 years ago only allowed us to travel one kilometer, now we should try to explore it all.

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And then is it from the Moon that we’re looking at Mars?

The aim is to build a permanent space station on the Moon from which to start missions to the rest of the universe, into space, because the goal, the real challenge of the new century, is to take man to Mars. And it is clear that scientists are increasingly convinced that to go to the red planet we’ll have to stop off on the Moon and leave from there. The conditions exist to allow the creation of a space station from which to leave for other missions. That’s how important this person is and explains the topicality of his American dream.

What does the story of Rocco Petrone teach young people?

From the time of the Apollo mission, the word impossible has been deleted from the dictionary of humanity. Since then, no venture can be considered impossible. We need men who are not only very capable and have lots of money available, this too is necessary, but above all we need men who are willing to dream. And Petrone’s was a generation of dreamers. Nobody would go to the Moon now with the difficulties they encountered 50 years ago.

Rocco Petrone is also remembered as the tiger of Cape Kennedy, what was behind this nickname?

After the tragic death of three astronauts on January 27, 1967 during an exercise that was later called the Apollo 1 mission, so that their sacrifice would not be in vain, Rocco Petrone's motto became: “Never again”. After that, even the most routine operation, would be subject to the strictest controls. No detail would be ignored, however insignificant it appeared to be. Hundreds of technicians were questioned for hours, meticulously, requiring answers to be given with absolute confidence and with a complete re-examination of the problem. And he was the one asking the questions directly. That’s how Rocco became “the tiger of Cape Kennedy”.

Zero tolerance was Petrone's Way.

No fewer than 800 Nasa employees and almost 8000 men from private companies were under Petrone's direction. In addition, there were 10,000 people that could be defined as supporting the various operations in some way. The countdown lasted 93 hours across a period of five days.”

A detailed recounting of the story in which we relive the excitement and the “strength of feeling” at Cape Kennedy on the eve of the launch.

Tension and fears had to be kept strictly outside the vast control room, the firing room, which became Rocco Petrone’s undisputed domain and his real home.

He was attentive to every detail before the launch, including that “bolt, a damn bolt a quarter of an inch too long” that risked ending the whole mission.

Cape Canaveral, July 16, 1969. The Apollo 11 journey to the Moon has just begun and the director of launch operations, Rocco Petrone, is celebrated by journalists around the world at the end of the press conference. “All is well - he says with a smile - but I should add that something has not gone exactly to plan”. “Something important?”, a reporter asks. “In a way yes. The Saturn departure took place a little later than we calculated”. “By how much?”. “Seven hundred and sixty-four thousandths of a second”, answered Petrone impassively. And nobody could work out if he was actually serious.

And the Moon?

It’s worth recalling the answer given by “that shy and rigorous man, a son of emigrants from Lucania”, from the town of Sasso di Castalda that dedicated its main square to him and its bridge, a Tibetan bridge 300 meters long and suspended more than 100 meters above the ground, to the Moon itself. “The Moon is still there waiting for us. I know that moment will arrive. I don't know when, perhaps not in this century, but there is still a lot to discover on the Moon, a lot to do. Someone will do it sooner or later, and the first step away from the Earth won’t remain the last. The Moon is only the nearest place to reach”.