Hispanic contribution to rocketry recalled

April 14, 2014 • Local News

Pablo Ornelas on the steps of a bank in Spur, Texas, in the 1930s. Ornelas was one of Robert Goddard’s “Don Quixotes” who helped build [auth] and launch rockets in Roswell in the 1930s. (Courtesy Photo)

When Dr. Robert H. Goddard was in New Mexico creating the era of rocketry that would usher in the Space Age, he had a little help — his Hispanic assistants referred to by Walter Winchell as “his Don Quixotes.”

Roswell resident Erinda Ornelas Vale wants the contribution of the Hispanic community to Goddard’s research remembered, and she wants to honor the men who helped Goddard as well as the famous professor when the city celebrates “Aiming For The Stars” in October.

Vale, 74, says she remembers hearing stories of her father, Pablo Ornelas, and her uncle, Tony Ornelas, and their work with Goddard in the 1930s.

“Many years ago as I watched the American astronauts step on the moon I heard Walter Winchell say, “if it were not for Robert Goddard and his Don Quixotes we would not be seeing this today,” Vale told the League of United Latin American Citizens recently. She asked the LULAC membership to help her promote the history of the Hispanic involvement with Goddard.

Former Mayor Bill Brainard initiated the idea to hold a two-day event to honor the legacy of rocket pioneer Robert H. Goddard and his years of research in Roswell.

Originally pitching this idea to the Chaves County Tourism Council, a community group came together and developed Brainard’s idea into an event that not only honors Goddard, but also his supporters and other New Mexico-related space pioneers.

In a news conference on April 3, Brainard, along with others responsible for the event, released details on the event, which will be held Oct. 17 and 18.

The first day of “Aiming for the Stars,” features a luncheon honoring Goddard’s accomplishments while recognizing those that contributed to his success: Charles A. Lindbergh, Harry F. Guggenheim, and the Smithsonian Institution.

“The manpower for making many community projects possible has always been provided by the Hispanic people here,” Vale said. “Robert Goddard like many other leaders was quick to understand this and thus to rely upon this talented and willing worker base.”

Vale said her father helped Goddard mix the rocket fuels at a distance from the other men as they were not really sure it would not explode in the process.

“My uncle Tony had recommended him for the position when he heard there was a need for someone who knew about internal combustion engines,” Vale said. “He was the Hispanic expert on engine repair and rebuilding of old cars. It was his recreation and part-time job.”

Vale said her father and mother were from Spur, Texas, and they moved to New Mexico in the 1930s. Ornelas joined the Goddard team, along with many other Hispanics, who believed in reaching for the stars.

“Unfortunately, except for that wonderful recognition by Winchell, they have largely been forgotten,” Vale said.

“Mrs. Goddard once told me that their efforts were documented in picture and videos,” Vale said. “Sadly, they wound up being lost and hopefully dispersed.”

Vale said she inquired about the photos at the Roswell Museum and was told they were stored in a box under a counter. Her brother also saw photos in a Las Cruces museum documenting the “Don Quixotes.”

Vale asked if LULAC could work with her to retrieve some of the photos and create a display in honor of the Hispanic contribution to the development of the rocket.

Perhaps a call could be made to bring any documentation of the Hispanic contribution to LULAC for use in a display she said.

“You always hear people say, ‘this isn’t rocket science.’ Well, this really was rocket science and I think it would be wonderful for our young people to see that their forefathers played an important role in the development of the Space Age,” Vale said.

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