Natalie Panek wants to be an astronaut. Seriously. She’s an inspiration to everyone to dream big and keep creativity alive. When she’s not building robotic arms to fix satellites in space (think orbital tow-truck!), she’s advocating for women in STEM and travelling the globe, exploring remote destinations with nothing but a stunning backdrop, challenging terrain, and herself. If you can gather, she has a knack for adventure, and we’re certain one day she’s going to have one that’s truly out of this world.
Talentedly: You are a rocket scientist, space roboticist, and a pilot—these are careers most people only dream about making a reality. What inspired your interest and how have you kept your dream alive?
Natalie Panek: I am and always have been driven by a dream of space exploration. My plan is to be an astronaut; it is the epitome of exploration and what it means to dream. But I think I have always been driven to challenge what is expected and push myself outside of my comfort zone. I tend to be drawn to unordinary situations with a willingness to try new experiences. I think the most unexpected yet rewarding aspect of this pursuit is that I have had some pretty cool experiences, which allow me to inspire the next generation of women to pursue STEM careers. My stories are an opportunity for others to visualize what is possible for their daughters, sisters, or any other women in their lives.
TLY: We imagine there were some naysayers along the way. How did you respond?
NP: Not so much naysayers, but disbelief that someone outside of their childhood years would still want to be an astronaut. I think it is very common for children to have these valiant dreams but for some reason society tends to dull out imagination, creativity, and possibilities as we get older. I choose to live each day with curiosity and interest in the world and belief that anything is possible!
TLY: What is the biggest misconception about working for NASA?
NP: I like how multidisciplinary the environment is; not only engineers and scientists but a diverse group of people with different backgrounds working towards positive change. Multidisciplinary platforms are a key to innovation, and innovation is how we will change the world. I learned the value in seeking contributions from an interdisciplinary team. Working with a range of disciplines fostered creative thinking across boundaries and I took advantage of learning opportunities from a diverse team in order to push beyond conceived limitations. Success in each of these endeavors relied on collaboration with several schools of thought in the pursuit of a common goal: innovation.
TLY: Did you have a support network helping you stay true to your passions? Was building your career in space robotics and aviation purely self-motivated?
NP: My career has definitely been self-motivated because I tend to be very independent. But I definitely would not be where I am in my career today without the support and encouragement of my family and a number of mentors over the years. Mentors are critical as champions who will push you to your limits.
TLY: We gather you have a love affair with adventure. Where has your most spectacular adventure been and why?
NP: This is a tough question because I love all of my adventures for various reasons. But most recently traveling to Nunavut to hike the Akshayuk Pass on Baffin Island was extremely rewarding. I plan trips that are very remote, where I will see few other people, and through terrain that is very challenging. The Akshayuk Pass is a stunning river valley between mountain ranges fed by a number of glaciers. I just felt at home. The outdoors moves you in ways you do not expect, leaving you with a definite feeling of incomparable richness.
TLY: You’ve spoken at a number of events—what is your favorite topic to speak about?
NP: I have two. The first is the idea of satellite servicing, which uses robotic arms to repair and refuel satellites that have broken down on-orbit. Imagine an orbital tow truck! Satellite servicing is important because it enables what I call sustainable exploration and it is so, so critical in the data-driven age that we live in.
The second is advocating for women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, also known as STEM subjects. I am very passionate about encouraging more women to pursue non-traditional careers and fields that they may not consider upfront. Working with technology is incredibly rewarding and we need to focus on why women involved with technology love what we do by sharing our stories and experiences – particularly through a variety of media outlets. The more young women hear about and see other women innovating, inventing, and building, the more they will believe they can do it too.
TLY: What advice would you give anyone wanting to go into space robotics or aviation industries?
NP: Dive head-on into challenge. See challenge and risk as a means to life-long learning and as valuable opportunities to push your limits. You can learn a lot about yourself by participating in situations outside of your comfort zone, particularly in the science, engineering, and technology fields. Dream big and dare to achieve the impossible.
TLY: Quote or mantra to live by?
NP: “Never do things others can do and will do if there are things others cannot do or will not do.” — Amelia Earhart
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