was born and raised in El Paso, graduating from Cathedral High School. After
a stint at Texas Western (now UTEP), Portillo joined the WSMR workforce in
Right away, Portillo grasped the business of using
various camera systems to capture different kinds of missile information. By
the mid-60s he was the team leader for “standing up” ballistic cameras on
the north end of White Sands for tests of such night shots as the Athena.
Athenas were fired from Green River, Utah in the middle of the night.
The cameras recorded the streaks of light from the
Athena’s re-entry vehicle as a booster propelled it down into the target
area on White Sands. The trajectory of that vehicle was then analyzed using
the exposed film.
Portillo’s experience with all the different camera
systems and the many needs of test programs placed him on the front lines
during the late 1970s through the 80s. This was a time when the range was
moving away from manned camera equipment and developing remotely controlled
and automatic tracking equipment.
The new systems included the Aided Laser Tracking
System (ALTS), the Multi-Mode Automatic Tracking System (MATS), the Launch
Area Theodolites (LATS) and the Kineto Tracking Mount (KTM). These systems
allowed closer placement of optics to hazardous events since no humans were
on board. Stunning photos were the result.
Also, video was integrated into some of them and
suddenly, range controllers and program personnel could see what was going
on in real time. They were no longer blind.
According to Portillo’s nomination, his “leadership was
instrumental in integrating the remote automatic tracking systems” into
WSMR’s data collection capability. When it came to operating and maintaining
these systems, Portillo “was the go-to-person.”
This type of recording capability was necessary for the
future of testing at White Sands and serves as the “backbone of today’s
optical systems.” It was so important because the missile systems changed
and the program managers wanted to see particular events captured in great
For example, the Army Tactical Missile System’s missile
can carry a variety of submunitions to be dispensed over a target area.
These can vary from hundreds of little bomblets to a handful of smart
weapons like the BAT that move out and seek targets on their own. Without
these remotely controlled systems, the cameras used to capture the
dispersion of the munitions would be safely placed miles away. Instead,
because no humans are there, the cameras are in close.
By the 1990s, Portillo’s experience and expertise put
him in a position to help other military test ranges. In the Department of
Defense there is a Range Commanders Council. All the military services
participate and the intent is to share knowledge, technical standards, and
equipment, if possible.
Initially Portillo was the missile range’s
representative to the Optical System group of the council. In 1994 he was
made the vice-chairman of the group and then chairman in 1996 and again in
According to Portillo’s nomination, he took on the role
of “leader for the development and operational readiness of laser tracking
systems” across the Army, Navy and Air Force test ranges. He is also
credited for ranges sharing instrumentation which resulted in enormous cost
Finally, Portillo “was instrumental in coordinating the
effort to develop digital imaging systems to replace legacy film-based
instrumentation.” In fact, when the effort began, he coordinated the program
for White Sands to host an “imaging shoot-off” so developers could test
their devices during live missile firings. The shoot-off gave them the
background they needed to go ahead and build the instruments WSMR and others
would use to move from film to digital.
As they say, the rest is history. White Sands no longer
uses film which means it no longer needs a huge film processing facility
which saves buckets of money. Also, data is available much, much faster now;
that makes testers happy.
Portillo retired in 2001 and still resides in El Paso.