updated 8/31/2006 11:12:20 PM ET 2006-09-01T03:12:20

Rocco Petrone, who was director of launch operations at Kennedy Space Center in the 1960s and played a key role in the Apollo program that landed men on the moon, has died. He was 80.

Petrone, who later served as director of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, died Aug. 24 at his home in suburban Palos Verdes Estates of complications related to diabetes, his wife Ruth said this week.

Born in Amsterdam, N.Y., Petrone graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1946. After serving in Germany, he worked on various missile programs, including the nation's first ballistic missile.

He went to work for the Army general staff at the Pentagon before transferring in 1960 to NASA's facilities at Cape Canaveral, Fla., now Kennedy Space Center.

Petrone took over planning, development and activation of all launch facilities for the Saturn rockets used in the Apollo program.

In 1966, he became director of launch operations at Kennedy Space Center and helped oversee the first Apollo launches.

He was watching launch operations center TV screens on Jan. 27, 1967, when a fire in the Apollo 1 command module killed astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee during a launch pad countdown test.

In an interview with The Associated Press 20 years later, he recalled feeling helpless.

"When the cry came out, I looked at the screen," Petrone said. "I saw something going on, I saw a shake, I saw a flash inside the ship. It was just utter helplessness. Just nothing you could do. You could not get to them. The thing exploded in 19 seconds ... Those minutes were heart-rending."

In 1969, the year of the historic Apollo 11 moon landing, he was named director of the entire Apollo program.

Petrone took over as director of the Marshall Center in Huntsville, Ala., in 1973. There he oversaw the center's role in Skylab, the nation's first crewed space station before leaving a year later to accept an appointment as a NASA associate administrator at the agency's headquarters in Washington.

Petrone retired from NASA in 1975 and later served in senior posts at space shuttle-builder Rockwell International in California.

Private services were held in Southern California. Along with his wife of 50 years, Petrone is survived by daughters Teresa Petrone of Charlotte, N.C., Nancy Petrone of Atlanta, and Kathryn Posey of Atlanta; and son Michael Petrone of Palos Verdes Estates.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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