Canadian rocket scientist Natalie Panek tells TechRepublic about trying to make it to space and inspiring women in tech along the way.
Lots of kids want to be astronauts.
It certainly sounds cool — space and what not. However, there's usually a point where kids stop listing that as their hopeful future profession and end up moving toward more terrestrial pursuits like lawyers, accountants, and teachers.
Natalie Panek wasn't one of those kids. On the contrary, every step she's taken in her education and career was intended to move her a little closer to her goal of traveling to space.
Currently, she's a rocket scientist at MDA's Robotics and Automation Division, the division that built the Canadarm and Canadarm 2, which is on the International Space Station. At the moment, Panek is working on building the chassis and locomotion from the Mars rover, but for a rover program for the European Space Agency.
Her work at MDA only accounts for the past six years of her life.
Panek first got interested in space growing up in the Canadian Rockies. She backpacked, camped, and generally loved adventure and exploration.
"I think wanting to go to space really parallels that and answers that for me. And then it's also this really cool pursuit of the unknown, and trying to find out what's out there, and lifelong learning," she said.
At the University of Calgary, she majored in mechanical engineering. It was there she got a pretty unique opportunity to work on a project — one where she found herself crossing the American/Canadian border in a solar-powered car.
In 2005, the American Solar Challenge was set to wrap up at the University of Calgary. The challenge is the longest solar race in the world, and involves teams from universities designing, building, and driving experimental solar-powered vehicles across North America over the course of 10 days. The cars have to be able to keep up on the highway, and have features like turn signals, brakes, a horn, and a rearview mirror.
When U of C ended up as the endpoint for the race, the president decided they couldn't just be the ones waving the flag. They were going to enter a car.
So, Panek led the aerodynamics team, and when the time came to find drivers, volunteered, and went through almost a year of training before being selected as one of four drivers for her school.
"You're driving on the highway with everyday vehicles and transport trucks, and it's so neat to see the looks on people's faces when they see something they've never seen before," she said.
And she thought maybe those other drivers she passed on the road might start wondering about solar power.
But driving from Texas to Alberta isn't the only endurance test Panek has been through.
While still in school, she applied for an internship at the Goddard Space Flight Center, in Maryland. It was a scholarship program through the Canadian Space Agency. They'd send one Canadian student every year.
Four years in a row, they rejected Panek.
So, she called the chief officer of higher education at NASA. When she got over the momentary shock of having him actually pick up the phone, she stated her case and was offered an internship on the spot.
After that, she got another internship with the Space Studies Program at the International Space University, held at NASA Ames Research Center in California, and subsequently wound up at MDA.
And in between solar powered cars and NASA internships, she got her private pilot's licence, and a master's degree from the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies and Aerospace Engineering, where her master's thesis explored how flames burn in microgravity.
Even with all that going on, one of the things Panek is most proud of is maintaining a work life balance. She still camps and backpacks, and while she won't take her work with her into the Canadian backcountry, she still takes her love of science.
She recently blogged about packing metal salts and tinkering around with them by seeing what colors they'd turn the flames of her campfire. It's a small, cool trick that amounts to colorful chemical reactions — potassium chloride emits purple when burned, cupric chloride is blue.
Her "Saturday Science Sessions" are often that simple. You might have even done them in school.
"You do all those things when you're a kid, and for some reason, we stop doing it after a certain point, but you don't have to," she said.
When Panek thinks back to being a kid, particularly one who wanted to be an astronaut, she remembers there being a dearth of women role models and mentors.
When she was older, she decided that she could be the type of role model she would have wanted as a kid, and that informs a passion for women in STEM.
"We just need a more diverse population working on the problems that we are faced with now and that we're going to be faced with in 10, 20, 30 years from now, and that means recruiting more women to go into science tech and engineering fields," she said.
There's the problem of inspiring and supporting an interest in young girls, and then keeping them once they've started their careers.
"I really think the key for inspiring young women into STEM is providing better access to role models who are accessible on a daily basis," she said.
One of Panek's role models is Roberta Bondar, Canada's first woman astronaut.
Panek doesn't know if she'll make it to space as Bondar did — Canada only has two active astronauts. They were selected in 2009, and aren't supposed to fly until 2019 and 2024.
Though, if she has the chance to enter a selection program, she'll probably be in pretty good shape.
"It's such a big goal that's really improbable. It's driven me to have really cool experiences along the way and I'm continuing to use those experiences to positively inspire women," she said. "And if I get to my goal, it's icing on the cake."
In her own words...
How do you unplug?
"First and foremost, I unplug by getting into the outdoors. Hiking, backpacking, canoe trips, anything in the back country that's remote and I can get away from cities, people, and my job, and if that's not possible, then reading books, or I play ultimate frisbee a couple nights a week in a competitive league, [and] photography."
What's your favorite book?
"My favorite book is Failure is Not an Option by Gene Kranz and that's the story of NASA flight director Gene Kranz during the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo era of space travel. I'm currently reading the Martian and loving it. I read mostly nonfiction and a lot of biographies."
If you could try a different profession what would it be?
"Everything. Oh my goodness. If I could be a race car driver, a fighter pilot, a submarine pilot, an underwater welder, set a land speed record in a car — I would love to do all of that. So I realize, what would be really cool to combine all those things, is hosting a TV show. And maybe on that TV show, I would interview women who are succeeding in all of those cool roles, and then I would get to try it with them."