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Natalie Panek loves being a space roboticist. She’s worked on Mars rovers, studied the impact of lunar dust on sensors, and even helped create robots that can repair satellites still in orbit. Natalie admits that her career probably isn’t one that her younger self would have picked – but now that she is here, she has no interest in trading it. She is thankful that her earliest passions, though different than what she does now, ultimately helped her end up where she belongs.
As a child in Alberta, Canada, Natalie spent a lot of time with the stars. Whether stargazing during camping and hiking trips, or watching Star Trek, Star Wars, and Stargate with her mom, Natalie’s thoughts often took her to space.
She looked at the sky, watched her favorite stories, and thought, “It would be really cool to be part of this awesome team of people exploring other places”.
Even then she was drawn to the idea of a team, “All of those people have different talents and expertise and just feed off of each other.” Like so many kids, she came away with the goal of becoming an astronaut.
But Natalie quickly realized there wasn’t a guide on how to become an astronaut. You didn’t just go to college and major in astronaut studies. Like the teams on her favorite shows, real astronauts came from a range of backgrounds and experiences. She talked to her favorite physics teacher and came down to two options: astrophysics and engineering. She wasn’t really familiar with either, but she thought about her love of hands-on work in her physics classes. Natalie decided she would probably rather be the one to design technology that collects data than the person who analyzes the data once it is collected. She chose engineering.
In college, Natalie kept seeking out experiences she thought might make her appealing as a potential astronaut someday. She got her pilot’s license and joined the solar car team at her college.
Suddenly, her thoughts of “it would be awesome to do” changed into things she was actually doing. “Wow, I’m literally flying an airplane by myself,” she remembers thinking. And later, “I’m in control of this spaceship-looking vehicle crossing the border between the United States and Canada.”
Natalie’s time with the solar car also gave her a first taste of what it was like to be part of a team. Although it was a small sample, the solar car work went through all of the stages that engineering teams follow for bigger projects. She started to see what it looked like when different people with different skills came together. Her skills – combined with her health and athleticism – made it possible for her to be a driver. Natalie had to go through a year-long training routine, including cycling in heated classes, to prepare for the six-hour stints in the car. But the opportunity came up, and she took it.
As college ended, she looked for engineering jobs involving space. But she found there were few opportunities in Canada for working on anything besides airplanes.
Then, with some good fortune, the space technology company MDA put out a call for engineers on the NextGeneration Canadarm. She had not done any space robotics, but she applied anyway. Her experiences and skills got her onto the team, and she has been learning ever since.
An addition to doing work she loves, space robotics has connected back to another part of her identity. She remembers her childhood hiking and camping, and how much emphasis was placed on leaving no trace. Working with fascinating space technology, and learning what it took to repair it, made Natalie recognize that space is “just another kind of wilderness.” The more we depend on space-based technology for everything from our phones to our cars, the greater impact space debris will have on our futures. It was a problem that people in her field were aware of, but often came as a complete surprise to the public. Using stories to engage people that impact has become another one of her passions.
Natalie feels lucky to have ended up where she is, but she still looks back and thinks of all the times she wishes she’d had a mentor to guide her through. That’s one reason she started her website; as a way to open doors between her and other young people who might want to ask questions she never had a chance to ask. Her experience with those conversations has convinced her to encourage others to seek out opportunities to be mentors. “I guarantee that there is someone younger than you who is looking for a mentor,” she said. And what does she hope this will accomplish? She hopes to get rid of barriers for the next group coming through, “barriers that have no business being barriers” to begin with.