Rocco A. Petrone graduated from the United States Military Academy and was commissioned an Ordnance officer in 1946.
After serving in maintenance units for three years in Germany, the Army sent him to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He earned a masters degree in mechanical engineering from MIT in 1951 and was well on his way to completing a doctorate when the Army transferred him to Redstone Arsenal in 1952 to join the Ordnance Corps' Redstone Missile Program. While assigned to the Arsenal, he participated in the development of the Redstone, the nation's first ballistic missile and was a member of the Missile Firing Laboratory when the first Redstone launch took place at Cape Canaveral in August 1953. Thus, began Petrone's long association with America's missile development program, first with the Ordnance Corps and then with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
From 1956 to 1960, he served on the Army General Staff where he worked closely with the Office of the Chief of Ordnance to develop maintenance support packages for the emerging family of Army rockets and guided missiles. Afterwards, the Army agreed to loan him to NASA at Cape Kennedy as the Saturn project officer, and in 1961, he was assigned as the Apollo Program Manager. While on loan to NASA, he was involved in the first 4 Saturn launches and was responsible for the planning, construction, and activation of the launch facilities for the Apollo Program.
In 1966, he retired from the Army as a lieutenant colonel and joined the civilian workforce at NASA as the Director of Launch Operations. His launch team was responsible for the checkout and launching of all space vehicles, to include the famous Apollo 11, the first lunar landing. Subsequently, he was promoted to Director of the Apollo Program in Washington, DC, where he was responsible for the overall direction and management of the remaining Apollo launches, and then assigned as Program Director for the Joint US/Soviet Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. In recognition of his contributions to the nation, Rollins College awarded him an honorary Doctorate of Science in 1969.
In 1973, NASA appointed him as the Director of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, and shortly thereafter as the Associate Administrator at NASA Headquarters. In this position, he was the third-ranking executive in NASA and responsible for all of NASA's research and development programs.
When he left NASA in 1975, he was appointed President and Chief Executive of the non-profit National Center for Resource Recovery, dedicated to the recovery of materials and energy from solid waste.
In 1981, Dr. Petrone joined Rockwell International and became President of the Space Transportation Systems Division where he was charged with the development and production of the space shuttle orbiter and continued his work as one of America's pioneers in guided missile and space flight development.