Natalie Panek, Aerospace Engineer

“For as long as I can remember, my goal has been to travel to outer space. For me, it wasn’t enough to just ‘want’ to be an astronaut - I was ‘going’ to be an astronaut.” Natalie Panek, Mission Systems Engineer at MDA Space Missions

There have been only 12 astronauts recruited by the Canadian Space Agency in the past 30 years but that doesn’t faze Natalie Panek. From her educational choices to current job as mission systems engineer at MDA Space Missions, the 27 year old has single-mindedly created a career path designed to achieve her dream of one day flying in outer space.

“It may take 15 to 20 years and that’s all right,” says Natalie. She knows that even after being selected to Canada’s astronaut program, there will still be years of study and training required before setting a foot in space.

“I use the certainty of accomplishing my dreams to stay motivated, challenge myself and work as hard as I can,” she says.

Natalie’s Tech Résumé

Natalie already has an aerospace career that many would envy. For the past three years she’s worked at MDA, just outside Toronto. Under contract to the Canadian Space Agency, MDA produced the robotic arms – Canadarm – used on every U.S. space shuttle mission as well as the complex robotics that make up the Mobile Servicing System. The system is essential to the operation of the International Space Station.

Natalie’s focus is kinematic workspace analysis for robotic missions – essentially planning robotic operations and ensuring the robot can do them. She is also part of MDA’s sustaining engineering team for the robotic arms on Space Station and is currently training to be part of MDA’s flight support team. The team members solve any problems with the Space Station’s two-armed robot and also perform ongoing analysis to catch potential issues before they can affect the work astronauts are doing in orbit.

While Natalie’s current role is pretty cool, it’s only the latest in a list of cool things she has done. Here are some of her career highlights:

  • MDA Next Generation Canadarm program. Natalie was involved in the research and development of a new breed of robotic arms that could one day be launched to perform in-orbit repairs on damaged or disabled satellites.
  • International Space University at NASA Ames in California. During a three-month internship, Natalie explored ideas for a manned mission to Mars, not only looking at what astronauts would experience enroute to Mars but how they would live when they got there, like possibly using underground caves as shelters.
  • Special Project Intern, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. Natalie learned about research in NASA’s parts and packaging division where scientists study how space affects the function and reliability of components such as electronics that can ruin a mission if they fail or short circuit.

Advocate for Women in Tech

Staying focused on the positives and possibilities in life isn’t a cliché to Natalie. It’s an essential part of achieving her career dreams together with her education and work experience.

“I’ve been fortunate to realize how much a positive attitude can impact everything you do,” Natalie says. “That attitude has become natural to me and it’s what has gotten me through any difficulties of working in a male-dominated industry.

“And working in a field that sees me in meeting rooms as the lone female engineer certainly has challenges. But I think the biggest and most unfortunate downfall of all, is the lack of female role models and mentors in tech careers.

“Whether through a lack of role models at a young age or a disproportionate focus in the media, opportunities for women in Science, Engineering, and Technology fields are often overshadowed.”

Natalie is an advocate for women in tech.  “I want to challenge girls to get inspired and take a risk. The key to female empowerment is not only changing the way society perceives women but, more importantly, changing the way women view themselves and what we can accomplish,” she says.

Natalie’s ‘How To’ Advice

  • “Take time to figure out who you are, what you want and the things you consider important.”
  • “Decision making should be easy. All you have to do is pick the direction that fulfills you the most. Often, that decision is the one you are most excited to tell people about. Technically, there isn’t a wrong decision – just ones that lead you down different paths.”
  • “Embrace every moment of any experience, while tackling audacious goals. if you work hard, help other people whenever you can – and enjoy every minute of life – then everything will just fall into place.”
  • “My love of adventure and passion for learning, is my compass. Our generation of females and the next should be inspired to embrace adventure and challenge, and become leaders of our generation.”

Natalie’s Tech Education Journey

  • Bachelor of Science (BSc) in mechanical engineering from the University of Calgary, where Natalie participated on the University’s solar car team. She helped design the car and drove it in the 2005 North American Solar Challenge.
  • Master of Science (MSc) in aerospace engineering from the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies focusing on the differences in how flames burn on earth compared to the microgravity and vacuum of space. As part of her Master’s studies, Natalie helped design and complete combustion experiments that simulated microgravity.
  • International Space University Space Studies Program, a graduate-level training for the future leaders of the emerging global space community.
  • NASA Goddard Space Flight Center special project intern.
  • Women’s Mentoring Network protégée – Wisdom II Mentoring Program.

Follow Natalie’s career and her personal interests – especially hiking - at her website and blog ThePanekRoom. She says her website is “a medium for women (and men!) to recognize the vast tech opportunities available and it provides resources to help strive for excellence in challenging fields that can influence the foundations of our generation and the next.” You can also follow Natalie on Twitter @nmpanek