Sunday, March 13, 2011

Rocco Petrone: A Modern- Day Cathedral Builder

 "The Invisible Pyramid" by Loren Eisely contains a chapter entitled "The Spore  Bearers". In it the fungus, Pilobolus, is likened to a rocket. The spore which will project the descendants of Pilobolus into the future prepare themselves  with a light sensitive capsule to aim ever toward the brightest light. When the right chemical pressures are built up the cells beneath the capsule explode, hurling it several feet away. This enables Pilobolus, which grows on the dung of cattle, to transport itself to fresh grass where they will be consumed again by the cattle.

The influential German "philosopher-poet'" Oswald Spengler's attempt to discern an organic pattern to cultural history and the zeitgeist or spirit of an age is also invoked by Eiseley.

Perhaps what he (Spengler) terms the Faustian culture-our own-began as early as the eleventh century with the growing addiction to great unfillible cathedrals with huge naves and misty recesses where space seemed to hover without limits. In the words of one architect, the Gothic arch is "a bow always tending to expand". Hidden within its tensions is the upward surge of the space rocket. ( The Invisible Pyramid, pg. 84)

Eiseley opens "The Invisible Pyramid" with a haunting story of how his father, in the early years of the twentieth century, took him in his arms outside to see Halley's comet. Pointing to the sky he advised patience and caution and in seventy five years it would return. The father wanted the young Eiseley to see it again for him; because by then he would be long gone.

This ability to look forward, and then back, and then forward again is a hallmark of all great cultures. It has appeared in the West as Minerva, depicted as an owl with a neck capable of rotating 180 degrees. There are shrines to Minerva in many places in the region of Puglia. Saint Janarius, the San Gennaro of the city of Naples,for whom our January is named, is the month for reflecting on the past  and making resolutions for the coming year. Two-sided Janus heads have also been found in Celtic lands of central Europe.

 Janus-head, Roquepertuse, France

In the early 1960's when  in grade school I would feign sickness to watch the Mercury and Gemini manned rocket launches. The decade we call "the Sixties" and its social and cultural significance, did not come into full swing until 1968 and lasted into the mid seventies.The early sixties were still a time when the average schoolboy and the public at large followed the space program closely. The "invisible pyramid" that Eiseley referred to was the giant  network that supports Science and the consequent space program. We all felt that we were a part of it.

During a recent bout of the flu, at home recovering, I became aware that the last flight of the Space Shuttle had been completed the day before. Now, about fifty years later I found myself at  home, truly sick this time,  and the manned space program is over. Reflecting on the significance of this, which I still resist acknowledging, my mind wandered back to a family scene. I am watching the recovery of one of the capsules and the astronauts on television with my father. The name of a prime mover and shaker at NASA was mentioned by the news reporter. My father looks up from his newspaper and repeats the name with obvious recognition and delightful pride...Rocco Petrone!

What many would call the crowning achievement  of Western civilization, the landing of men on the moon and returning them safely, naturally involved many people besides the more well known astronauts. All played a part but some were much closer to the top.

Rocco Petrone came from apparent humble origins, and was born on March 31, 1926 near Schenectady in New York State. His parents were southern Italian immigrants from the comune of Sasso di Catalda in the region of Basilicata just across the Vallo di Diano from Sassano where my paternal ancestors originated. His father was a railroad worker who died when his son was three. His mother later remarried. He was awarded an appointment to the military academy at West Point and played on the football team as a defensive lineman graduating in 1946. He earned his masters degree in mechanical engineering from MIT in 1951. Along with Werner Von Braun and scientists and technicians from the German rocket program at Peenemunde he participated in the development of America's first ballistic missile, the Redstone, which was also used for the Mercury and Gemini manned capsule orbiters.

Petrone and Von Braun

In 1960 Petrone turned down the opportunity to attend the Command and General Staff school  of the Army; instead he transferred to NASA. In May of 1961 President Kennedy announced that the US would attempt to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Petrone relished the thought of being in on a project that would help his nation present a bella figura to the outside world. On hearing the announcement:

...Rocco Petrone turned to Albert Zeiler ( a colleague) with a grin on his face and said, "Al, we've got our work cut out for us." Petrone, a man of theatrical flair, loved the drama of a nation undertaking this enormous challenge in full public view. He thought of it as saying to the world, "Here's the line we're going to cross." (Apollo, pg. 71)
After the announcement, Petrone was put in charge of the "Heavy Space Vehicle Systems Office" at Cape Canaveral. His job was to supervise the launch system for the mission. This included choosing the site, establishing a system for the launch, and then getting it it built.

"...The launch vehicle...would come to seem anthropomorphic to Petrone, as if it were a giant to whom Petrone and the thousands of workers at the Cape were bound like servants to an imperious master. "You can't be saying to him, "I'm sorry, you can't have that much propellant,' or' You can't have that much juice or that much wiring," said Petrone. He's going to get what he wants. The flight article has got to dominate." And because Goliath's demands were going to be so outrageous, the machines for tending to him would have to follow suit. Launching Saturn Vs involved the management of extremes-the biggest and the smallest, the hottest and the coldest, wispy fragility and colossal strength-and in the design of the Launch Operations center, form followed function. But they were bizarre forms to fit an outlandishly extravagant function."  Apollo pg.71
Cape Canaveral on the eastern coast of Florida was not an ideal site for this task, however it was chosen because of its remote location in the event of a catastrophic explosion or accident downrange after launch. It is an area subject to hurricanes and lighting storms. Thunderstorms roll through on a daily basis bringing humidity and salt air,all corrosive to complex machinery. After it was decided that the Saturn V "launch article" could only be built and prepped in the vertical position a building to protect it from the elements had to be built. It would be the largest enclosed space in the world; it was also built on sand.

The decade ending deadline required a system having more than one rocket ready for launch at any one time. They would have to be prepped in an area 3-1/2 miles away from the launch site. Petrone and fellow NASA engineer Don Buchanan had no choice but to design a Crawler transporter the size of a major league infield that would also have to negotiate a five degree slope . This was accomplished without the the Saturn V being outside of the vertical by more than a foot and a half.

Petrone's skill in all of this was his ability to see the big picture and make sure all the components fit and performed seamlessly. He called it "concurrency". Considering that this had never been done before, it was on an accelerated schedule, and there were many different civilian contractors supplying parts it is hard to imagine that it was successfully accomplished many times.

Saturn V ready for launch

 The night before the first launch of the multistage rocket :
"...the tower and the vehicle were bathed in lights, set off by searchlights that intersected at the apex of the stack. To a New York Times reporter, the Saturn looked like a crystalline obelisk. To a visiting Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the Saturn and the red umbilical tower with its swing arms were a white maiden clasped by a monstrous lobster. Rocco Petrone was reminded of a cathedral." Apollo, pg 234
In 1966 Petrone was appointed Director of Launch Operations at the renamed Kennedy Space Center. After the Apollo 11 landing he became the director of the entire Apollo program overseeing all the subsequent moon landings. In 1973 he became the first non-German director of the Marshall Space Flight center, formerly the domain of Von Braun and company , where he worked on the Space Shuttle and Skylab programs. In the 1980's he joined Rockwell International the manufacturer of the Space Shuttle.

The morning of the  flight of the doomed Challenger he told NASA that it would not be advisable to launch in  freezing temperature . The cause of the disaster did turn out to be the effect of  cold  on the engine O rings. Rockwell and Petrone thought that the thermal protective tiles could come loose at low temperatures. Although they were perhaps wrong about the precise danger, the next disaster, the Columbia,  was caused by damage to these tiles from falling ice buildup while still on the launch pad.

The description of Petrone, the man, by various people that worked with him are consistent. He was known at West Point as the "Italian Stallion" preceding that other fellow by a few years. His NASA obituary describes him as:

"...a broad shouldered tree of a man who in his line of work is treated with the same mixture of awe and respect football players give Vince Lombardi"
The authors of Apollo describe him as,
"Ebullient and blunt-spoken, he looked the way his name sound-big strong and Italian." pg.71
He was known as polite and fair but a probing questioner in his quest to ascertain the depth's of a persons knowledge. In an undertaking as complex as the space program attention to detail is of primary importance. The number of things that can go wrong is almost incalculable. His drive to get to the truth of the matter could be faustian in its proportions.  At one meeting in which an engineer was trying to bluff, Petrone physically removed the man, instructing his supervisor to fire him from the project. His subordinates and sometimes his superiors feared and respected him but they made sure the details were taken care of. In an obituary by Adam Bernstein of the Washington Post the weight of his opinion by the top political leaders was illustrated,
"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."
Petrone was not a polished speaker of the English language. He was, however, able to communicate his ideas to many people, including people of political importance to the program. His common touch and plain spoken communication skill worked to his benefit here. He also had the ability to get to the core of a problem by simplification to its basic components.

Loren Eiseley gives a description of the spirit that animates Western or faustian man,
"Faustian man is never at rest in the world. He is never the contemplative beneath the sacred Bo tree of the Buddha. He is, instead, a spokesman of the will. He is the embodiment of a restless, exploratory, and anticipating ego. In the last word we have the human head spun round to confront its future-the future it has created.It well may be that the new world, which began amidst time-tolling bells and the stained glass and dim interiors of Gothic cathedrals, laid an enchantment upon the people of Western Europe that provided at least a portion of the seedbed for the later rise of science-just as guilt has also haunted us. In its highest moments, science could also be said, not irreverently, to be a search for the Holy Grail." (The Invisible Pyramid, pg. 85)

In the end if all of our efforts in the quest for knowledge only lands us on a distant world only to be recycled like the Polobolus fungus it wouldn't have been in vain. The sheer joy of the effort was its own reward and that is what defines us.

Rocco Petrone , the man who contributed so much to that elegant spectacle of the lunar module gracefully descending to the moon , will have the last word.
"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)

Posted by John A Stavola
Apollo, Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox, Simon and Schuster,2004
Ebook copyright,2010 by Cox and Murray, Inc. 
The Invisible Pyramid, Loren Eiseley, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1970
Wikipedia entry, Rocco Petrone

 All photos are courtesy of NASA and are in the public domain.

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