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The Blueprint talks with Natalie Panek

Natalie Panek

Rocket Scientist and Explorer

Natalie Panek is a Mission Systems Engineer at MDA and an aspiring astronaut. She’s currently on a mission to inspire more women to get into the STEM fields. We sat down with Natalie to discuss mentorship, space debris and women in STEM.

What’s your story?

I am going to be an astronaut. I have had this long-term goal of traveling to space for a while now, with an awareness that the odds of actually getting to go are pretty small. So in the meantime, I have tried to build a skillset that might help me strategically venture beyond earth. If I don’t ever get to space, I will still have had really cool, amazing adventures and experiences that I can draw on and encourage others to dream big and work outside their comfort zones.

What are some of those experiences that will help you become an astronaut?

Everything from learning to fly a plane, to building and driving a solar-powered car across North America, to my love of the outdoors and the wilderness, and now working at a company that builds space robots.

What is your role at MDA?

I do a lot of systems and operations engineering at MDA’s Robotics and Automation Division, which built the Canadarm, Canadarm2, and Dextre robots. That means I do upfront concept development, mission planning and then creating requirements that the design adheres to when we’re building robotic products for customers. I also model robots in their workspace using 3D software to make sure that, in advance of doing something in an extreme environment, (i.e. space), the engineers and scientists know exactly where the robotic arm can go, where it needs to move to, what camera views operators need, or what structures the robot could potentially collide with. You do not want collisions when millions of dollars’ worth of hardware are launched into outer space.

What’s the biggest problem with launching hardware into outer space?

There are thousands of satellites orbiting Earth. As you know, we are living in an era of insatiable data demand where people want more and more bandwidth. The only way to meet that demand is by launching more satellites into orbit. Unfortunately we do not always responsibly address what happens to a satellite once it is no longer operational. Just like a car, a satellite has a certain lifetime, and if parts break down on the satellite or if it runs out of fuel, you have a few options for that satellite. First, it can be moved into a graveyard orbit—comparable to moving a car into the shoulder lane. However, you’re only moving equipment out of the way, not removing a broken asset from a valuable transportation network. Second, after a certain number of years the satellite can de-orbit and burn up in Earth’s atmosphere. Finally, it can remain in its current orbit.

At some point we are going to have to take responsibility for how much hardware we launch into space, especially given a greater expectation for data access in the future. We need to think more sustainably and promote “sustainable exploration,” as I like to call it.

How can we start doing something about it?

MDA for example, is working on the idea of satellite servicing, which would use a robotic arm on-orbit to repair and refuel satellites that have broken down. Think of it like an orbital tow truck. But this is also a matter of generating awareness for what happens in orbit and getting the public interested in satellite servicing. Unfortunately the orbital environment is out of sight, out of mind. We just cannot see all the satellites orbiting Earth or all the pieces of debris like you would be able to see a piece of garbage on the side of the road.

We need buy-in from the public: we need the public to care about why this is so valuable and to feel like part of the solution. The best place to start is awareness and getting people involved—for example, citizen science projects where people could help track the debris, or animations that people could engage with to learn about the orbital environment. Unless you are an astronaut, it really is hard to visualize.

What are the consequences of continuing to launch hardware products into space and not being responsible for that?

It is analogous to here on Earth if we did not recycle or start taking care of the environment. At some point we needed to start keeping the spaces around us clean, and this is equally true for the orbital environment. A cluttered environment is dangerous for astronauts exploring in space because of the risk of collisions. It is a danger to million-dollar assets if satellites collide with each other or debris collides with the International Space Station, like in the movie Gravity.

“The more we encourage women to choose these fields and the better support we provide, the more perspectives we will have working on technology, which ultimately leads to positive changes to the way we live and work.”

What’s the process for having a satellite launched into space?

In general, you will have a customer who needs a satellite, who then works with a satellite manufacturer and a launch provider to build, assemble, integrate, and test your hardware, then eventually launch it into orbit.

What makes you want to build physical things?

The opportunity to build, make, and test products is such a valuable skillset that I believe more people need to try, especially at an early age! You learn so much from assembling components together and soldering, screwing, integrating, testing, finding items that are broken and having to troubleshoot. Going through the life cycle of a project is such valuable real world experience. Almost everything in our day-to-day lives goes through a process like that, and the earlier in life you can learn about it, the better.

You’re passionate about getting more women involved in tech and engineering. Why should more women be involved?

At a high level, our world is going to face a lot of problems in the next few decades. Solving those problems and making the world a better place is going to require innovation and advancements with technology. A key to innovation is through diversity in the workforce and cross disciplinary perspectives. There is fairly good awareness of how few women there are in the sciences, technology, engineering and math sectors. The more we encourage women to choose these fields and the better support we provide, the more perspectives we will have working on technology, which ultimately leads to positive changes to the way we live and work.

“You do not want collisions when millions of dollars’ worth of hardware are launched into outer space.”

Why are you trying to be that voice in the community?

Growing up I was always looking for mentors or individuals to emulate my career after. I wanted to hear about the experiences and opportunities that would help me achieve my goal of going to space. It was hard—I never really found anybody.

Then it occurred to me a couple years ago: I was someone who now had those experiences, and it seemed like such a waste not to be sharing them with the next generation of women. I want to let girls and women know it’s really cool to join an engineering project, build something and race it. It’s really cool to learn how to fly a plane even though you might be completely intimidated and scared at first, like I was. That’s all okay as long as you’re learning and challenging yourself and asking questions to the people who can help you.

Why did you decide to try to learn to fly?

I was in university, and at the University of Calgary you have the option of participating in a 16-month internship between your third and fourth years. I worked at an oil and gas company and I felt like I was not heading towards my dream of space travel. Then I thought, “I have free evenings and weekends. I’m going to take ground school and learn how to fly a plane.” So I did.

This was something I said I was going to do, then just did it, diving head on into a situation outside of my comfort zone. I also lucked out getting the only female instructor. It’s not necessarily that I sought out a female instructor—because I take mentors as they come, regardless of gender—but it was a really neat experience to have a woman in that role; to hear her experiences, her goals, and lessons learned.

Are you in a position where you’re actively mentoring young women or looking for some to mentor?

I am involved in a program through the University of Calgary called Cyber Mentor. It is a mentorship program where girls are able to email back and forth with women in STEM careers on a weekly basis. I have participated in this program for a number of years.
Now, because more of my stories are reaching the public through social media, I find a lot of young women contact me directly and I am always happy to help where I can. I answer questions if I know the answer—or redirect them to other resources—because I know how hard it is to find and connect with someone in any industry, especially aerospace.

What’s your current state of mind?

At ease.

Where are you happiest?

In the mountains.

What is your idea of misery?

Living in a big city.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

My first internship at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

What is your greatest extravagance?

Travel and adventure.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

“Dream big”

Which living person do you most admire?

Elon Musk

What’s your favorite quote?

“All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.” -T. E. Lawrence

What is your most treasured possession?

My camera.

What book are you reading right now?

East To The Dawn: The Life of Amelia Earhart - Susan Butler

Where’s the best place for people to learn more about you?

My website is a great place for both. It has a lot of the aspects I am passionate about, such as inspiring women in tech and the outdoors. It is where I post what I call my Saturday Science Sessions, because I love doing science experiments in my free time. I post a lot of pictures of the science and the process because I think photographs can trigger curiosity and inspiration. It’s the same for my trips: I post many adventures on the site with accompanying photographs. There’s also a contact page, so if you drop me a line there I will see your email.

Next Questions

Bre Pettis of Bold Machines asked, “How are you optimizing your organization for the maximum amount of friendship in the world?”

I think this is a matter of encouraging your peers to create an environment that enables team context. By this I mean an environment where everyone performs at their best or at their peak because they are surrounded by passionate people who want to change the world. Optimizing these relationships enables innovation and growth.

A question I would ask to another founder or influencer:

How are you and your organization breaking stereotypes for women in STEM and encouraging more women to enter your field? Also, how are you encouraging your peers or your employees to be mentors or better mentors?

The Blueprint talks to

FirstBuild, Part 1