Published: 9:41 AM 6/24/2013
By Beccy Tanner, The Wichita Eagle
Lincoln La Paz was a Wichitan who became a world famous astronomer, pioneer meteorite expert and consultant with government investigations into the Roswell, N.M., UFO sightings.
This is one in a series of vignettes celebrating the state’s history. The series’ name comes from the state motto, “Ad astra per aspera: To the stars through difficulties.”
During a time when dark and stormy nights prevailed in the New Mexico desert, people were seeing things near Roswell and discovering they might not be alone.
In July 1947, there were reports of alien spacecraft crashes, wounded space alien survivors and mysterious green fireballs. Lincoln La Paz, a Wichitan and world-renowned astronomer and mathematician, was called in by the U.S. military to help investigate the sightings at Roswell.
La Paz eventually became an expert in “ufology,” the study of unidentified flying objects. His job was to provide scientific explanations for what people were reportedly seeing that summer.
It should be no surprise that Kansans were included as experts on the unexplained mysteries of the skies. According to a March 24, 2004, article of The Wichita Eagle, Kansas ranks second behind Texas for the most meteorites found within a state’s boundaries. Some of the most renowned meteorite specialists and astronomers have been born and raised in Kansas.
For instance, Clyde Tombaugh, from Burdett in Pawnee County, discovered Pluto. Harvey Nininger, one of the most famous meteorite hunters of all time, was born in Conway Springs and taught at McPherson College.
His contemporary – and often competitor – was La Paz, who was born on Feb. 12, 1897, in Wichita. La Paz received his bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Fairmont College in 1920, according to the University of Wichita Alumni Magazine published in April 1955.
La Paz attended Harvard University, where he earned his master’s degree in 1922. From 1922 to 1925, he taught at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. In 1928, he received his doctorate from the University of Chicago.
During World War II, La Paz was stationed in New Mexico as a research mathematician. He studied ballistics and meteorites and helped the Air Force investigate the Japanese Fugo balloon bombs that floated over and were found on the U.S. mainland.
In 1945, La Paz founded and became the director of the Institute of Meteoritics at the University of New Mexico, where he also chaired the department of mathematics and astronomy, according to the 1955 article from the alumni magazine. He became a prolific researcher of and writer about meteorites, publishing more than 120 articles and books.
“Whenever celestial or space problems arise in the nation, it is Doctor La Paz who is first to be consulted,” the alumni magazine article reported. “Nuclear physicists, guided missile experts, space engineers, and medical men rely upon his knowledge of space and meteors.”
In 1947, the summer of the strange lights and crashes near Roswell, N.M., La Paz himself spotted mysterious lights in the night sky while on a family vacation at Fort Sumner, N.M. He described them for the April 7, 1952, edition of Life Magazine as bright objects.
La Paz determined the lights were not meteors. Not planets or stars. And not alien spacecraft.
The objects, La Paz later contended, may have been government projects carried out in secret. He was quoted in Life magazine describing one sighting: The object “exhibited a sort of wobbling motion.”
The Saturday Evening Post described La Paz in May 1953: “He is a spring-trigger bundle of energy, weathered and tough, found in the field as often as in the classroom, stubborn about things he thinks important. … As a student of the fastest things that move in our skies, La Paz has absorbed some of their characteristics. His friends call him Mr. Fireball.”
In 1955, La Paz became the first person from what is now Wichita State University to receive the Alumni Achievement Award, according to Connie White, senior communications editor at the Wichita State University Alumni Association.
He died on Oct. 19, 1985, in Albuquerque. He was 88.