Technorican: The Life and Times of Candy Torres, Space Lover

"I had liberated myself very early on. I thought of myself as a human being first," she says. "I had a very curious mind, and I was not willing to let go of that."
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Candy Torres at Johnson Space Center (Candy Torres)

It wasn't easy being a Puerto Rican woman in South River, New Jersey, who wanted to go to space. 

Sure, it was the 1960s, and the astronauts of the Mercury and Apollo programs were national heroes. But if you were coming from where Candy Torres was coming from, you were supposed to worship them, not want to be them.

While white men were walking on the moon, other white men around New Jersey had some things to say about the domestic situation. "Being Puerto Rican, I would hear people talk, not necessarily negatively to us because we are light skinned, but people would talk," Torres told me. "'Blacks and Puerto Ricans' was the exact phrase, and people would say negative things."

But Torres had decided that she would pursue her interest in space anyway, and she made it. Through a long career in space-related fields, she has worked on satellites, the Space Shuttle, and the International Space Station. She hasn't made it to space, but she has lived two blocks from the Johnson Space Center, where she could stroll down Saturn Lane and NASA Road One.

"I had liberated myself very early on. I thought of myself as a human being first," she said. "I had a very curious mind, and I was not willing to let go of that."

Her parents didn't quite understand her dreams. They'd grown up in Harlem, then moved to the Bronx, where Torres was born. She proudly notes that she and Sonia Sotomayor were living not very far apart "for the first six years of our lives." By the time she was a young girl, they moved the family out of the city and out to South River and up a few rungs on the socioeconomic ladder. 

Torres graduated from high school in 1971, finding her way to Douglas College, which was a women's college that's now a part of Rutgers. She pieced together a major in space science from the offerings at the schools, a little aerospace engineering here, some geology over there, some astronomy—"anything space related."   

She nursed her interest in space adventure and technology with science fiction. Her first love was the '60s kids show, SuperCar. The doll heroes of SuperCar were a model for her. "The technology was being used to do good in the world," she said. "They were always going after villains." She graduated to other shows, too: Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, and Star Trek.

As she neared the completion of her undergraduate studies, a friend told her a job had come up working at Princeton on the Copernicus OAO-3C Satellite, which mostly made observations in the ultraviolet part of the spectrum. 

She went back to an astronomy professor she had, Dr. John Caldwell, and asked him about the job. It turned out, by sheer coincidence, that Caldwell knew the person hiring for the position and offered to be a reference. So, it was that she ended up graduating on a Thursday evening in 1976, interviewing the next morning at Princeton, and getting the job by the afternoon. "Less than 24 hours after graduating, I had a job in the space industry."

Like most jobs related to space, the actual work is not as glamorous as the field. She poured over computer printouts of data coming back from the satellite to make sure that it looked okay before passing it to the astrophysicists who were running the experiments. She worked on the project for more than five years. 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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