Today (July 20, 2019) is the 50th anniversary of Man’s first steps on the moon. Amsterdam’s best known connection to what many consider to be the greatest technical achievement in history was the late Rocco Petrone, who was the Launch Director for the mission that made Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind” possible. But there was a second Amsterdam native who played an integral role in getting the Apollo 11 astronauts to their celestial destination a half-century ago. His name is Angelo DiBlasi. DiBlasi was born in Amsterdam on May 8, 1927 in our City’s West End. He was raised on West Main Street with his brother Frank and sisters Armida and Jean. He graduated from Wilbur Lynch High School in 1944 and immediately went to work in the Bigelow-Sanford rug mills.
He was drafted into the US Army the following year just after Germany surrendered to end WWII in Europe but before Japan had followed suit. By the time he had completed his training stateside the War was over so he was stationed in Berlin with the occupation forces for the next eighteen months. When he was discharged, he returned to his job in the rug mill until a letter arrived from Uncle Sam telling him if he didn’t use his GI college benefit within the next year he would forfeit it. He immediately enrolled at Siena and studied Physics. His plan was to become a nuclear engineer and get a job at the GE sight in West Milton where a nuclear reactor was being constructed at the time. But by the time he graduated from college in 1955 however, the missile race between the US and Russia was reaching full throttle and there was a pressing need for engineers in the burgeoning aerospace industry. DiBlasi had six job offers by the time he got his Siena diploma and the West End native decided to head west to California to accept an engineering position with North American Aviation Corp. which was about to be sold to Rockwell International and renamed Rocketdyne.
DiBlasi did not move out west alone. In 1954 he had married Gilda Sansalone, the daughter of the proprietors of one of the most popular neighborhood grocery stores in Amsterdam history. The young couple ended up buying a house in the Chatsworth section of Los Angeles in a neighborhood filled with aerospace industry employees.
Rocketdyne assigned DiBlasi to the F1 Engine project as a development engineer. At the time, the F-1 was about to become the most powerful engine ever built by man, capable of generating 1.5 million pounds of thrust. The Amsterdam native was responsible for writing test programs for the engine and then analyzing the results of those tests and making modifications to eliminate discovered flaws and bugs. The success of the Apollo program depended on the ability of five Rocketdyne F-1 engines to deliver the 7.5 million pounds of thrust necessary to propel the 5,000 ton Saturn V rocket and capsule during the first three minutes of its flight to the moon.
Early testing of the engine showed a propensity for the F-1 to experience serious combustion instability problems. DiBlasi was one of the team of engineers who helped analyze and solve that problem. I had the privilege of personally speaking to DiBlasi two days ago by phone to ask him about his role in the historic Apollo 11 flight.
He told me he was confident that the F-1 engines were up to the task because they had been so well tested in both simulations and earlier Apollo flights. Still, he said there were millions of moving parts and so many complex systems involved in the mission that like everyone else, he felt a deep sense of relief and a huge amount of pride when Astronaut Neil Armstrong took those first steps on the lunar surface. He told me that up until that mission, money had not been a problem when it came to advancing this country’s space program. Everyone from the US Presidents on down were firmly transfixed on beating the Russians to the Moon. In 1961, President Kennedy had promised the country that an American would walk on the Moon before the end of that decade. In a 1999 interview in the LA Times commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, DiBlasi told the reporter “Everyone was dedicated to fulfilling Kennedy’s promise, There was a real spirit of interaction on the part of the government, the company, the contractors–it was just a great thing to be part of.”
DiBlasi had seen secret films of Russia’s attempts to launch rockets that could get their cosmonauts to the Moon. Most ended in catastrophic failure because the Soviet engineers could not replicate the power of the F-1. So instead of creating a rocket with just five engines, the Russians were forced to try and integrate 16 of their most powerful engines into their design and just couldn’t get it to work.
But it seemed as if no sooner had the ticker tape parade in New York City honoring the Apollo 11 Astronauts ended, that the Federal Government’s flow of money to the space program began to decrease. In that same 1999 LA Times article, DiBlasi explained how at Rocketdyne, engineers worked around the same desks in groups of four and beginning in 1970, he watched as his three desk mates were laid off one by one.
As bad as that makes you feel for his co-workers, it also signaled to me just how good an engineer DiBlasi must have been. He remained at the company for 34 years, retiring in 1988. He and Gilda raised a family of three children, two daughters and a son.
My Dad and Angelo DiBlasi grew up together on the same block and were good friends. I grew up and became very good friends with several of Angelo and Gilda’s nephews and nieces. I thought of these relationships as I was talking to this amazing 92-year-old Amsterdam native the other day about his brilliant aerospace career. We didn’t just talk about that career. Angelo also reminisced about his days in Amsterdam. We talked about Joe Mason, the barber who cut both our hair, Isabel’s restaurant, our old neighborhood and our families. He told me how back when he first moved to California he used to attend gatherings of former Amsterdamians who had also moved to the “Golden State”. The reunions were organized by the late John Fedullo, another former Amsterdam barber and over 200 one-time Rug City residents used to show up!
How special is it that two guys from Amsterdam, Rocco Petrone and Angelo DiBlasi played key roles in making Neil Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind possible fifty years ago? As far as I’m concerned, very special indeed.”