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Rocco Petrone passed away….so what?

Among the more unnoticed events of August was the death, at age 80, of Rocco Petrone.

Who was he? Among other roles, he was one of the key project leaders of the Apollo moon-landing effort. Due to his efforts, as well as those of many others, the project to land a man on the moon and return him safely was completed in July of 1969, ahead of schedule despite massive, unexpected challenges and severe setbacks.

What saddens me is not so much his passing, or the passing of many of the others who worked tirelessly at all levels on the Apollo project; after all, he was 80 and we know death comes to all. But in their death, these men and women should be acknowledged for what they did and what they accomplished, in the face of extraordinary technical, time, and extreme challenges. Instead, these people and what they did is pretty much ignored, or noted only as a small, passing news item.

It's nearly impossible for us, so many years after the 1960 decade, to even partially grasp the nature and intensity of their mission. From the lowest-level assembler and technician, all the way though engineers, scientists, programmers, mathematicians, flight engineers, pilots, mechanics, architects, and innumerable other experts in diverse disciplines, everyone was “pushing the envelope” in countless dimensions, facing known and unknown problems. They truly went where no one has gone before. Besides the technology and science, the management and coordination of the program required entirely new ways of thinking and operating.

It's not as if they were trying to advance the state of the art just in one or two disciplines, they had to do it in so many at the same time. Some of the manufacturing techniques they pioneered, for example, to machine and weld the second-stage fuel tank's ultrathin hemispherical top, are still unmatched—and the work was done with fairly crude (to us) robotic control.

The realities of operating equipment in the hard vacuum of space was poorly understood, in-orbit rendezvous (critical to the mission) was untried, and lunar lander “computer” had only 32 kilobytes of program memory, yet had to perform the navigational calculations in real-time. I could go on and on about the engineering and project management, but others have done so in more and clearer detail. The best book I have read on the topic is “Apollo” by Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox (1989), recently republished by South Mountain Books.

But the message of Rocco Petrone's passing is clear, unfortunately: outstanding engineering effort and achievement pales besides the escapades of Paris Hilton, Brangelina, and other shallow, easily replaced Hollywood celebrities whose actual accomplishments are minimal, at best. Sure, that's got to change, but how to do it?

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