Going to Mars!

Natalie Panek : Senior Engineer, Mission Systems


Spending a lot of time camping in the Canadian Rockies at a young age is how Natalie Panek fell in love with space and stars. Since then, she has always wanted to be an astronaut and she has not given up that dream. Sci-Fi also played a role in her desire to become an astronaut. Her biggest barrier, though, was not knowing how to become an astronaut. She knew there was more than one way to become an astronaut but she didn't have anyone around her whom she could ask to find out more.

In high school, she took all the science courses that she could. Biology. Chemistry. Physics. Natalie had a phenomenal physics who was a big reason why Natalie is where she is today. She encouraged all her students to ask questions and think about the underlying importance of the experiments they would do. Natalie also took advanced math courses in high school and enjoyed them all.

Although she didn't know anything about engineering in high school, she chose mechanical engineering as her college major. She chose that major because astronauts that she had researched were engineers. All she knew about engineering was that it would be challenging and a lot of problem-solving. That's exactly what it was and she couldn’t have been more thrilled. Engineering was a great fit for her. She was able to take different courses from fluid engineering to dynamics engineering. The more courses she took, the more courses she wanted to take.

There were times when she struggled and worried about her academic career but she never doubted that engineering was right for her. The engineering course that pushed her most out of her comfort zone was computer programming. That course had her doubting her capabilities but she got through it and credits her strong group of friends for that. Her friends rallied to ensure that they all got through engineering together.

For the last decade, Natalie has been working at a company that builds space robotics. She felt like a fish out of water when she started because she had no robotics experience.

However, her intelligent colleagues were there to give help. Since about 2015, she has been working on a Mars rover program. The European Space Agency is sending a rover to Mars in 2020. Natalie and her team have been building and testing the motion system for the rover. This includes the skeleton, legs, and wheels. Early March 2019, she and her team delivered to their customer the hardware that will actually be going to Mars. Their customer now has to integrate that hardware with the rest of the rover. This project has been challenging from the outset because the only country to successfully land a rover on Mars is the United States and she and her team have not had access to their information. They've used trial and error.

When she's not programming the Mars rover, she enjoys minimizing her use of technology because of how prominent a role  it plays in her career. She prefers to disconnect to have time to herself. To have time to reflect and re-energize without a screen. And because she is so busy, she doesn’t always get a chance to dry her long hair. When her wet hair is in a ponytail, she twists it into one big curl so that it will set upon drying. Curler-free curls. Also, her go-to skincare product is Noxzema to cleanse her face after working out.

With time, she has come to learn that success for her is not as vertical as it is lateral. Back in 2016 and 2017, the Canadian Space Agency was recruiting astronauts and Natalie made it to the top 100. Yet, she was automatically disqualified after making it to the top 100 because of her white strip of hair that is often linked to autoimmune diseases. Although it was out of her control, she felt like it was the biggest failure of her life. That is when she realized that success for her is the lateral motion of involvement in different arenas. For Natalie, these arenas not only include programming a robot for Mars but also her outreach efforts. She stresses the importance to self-define success and help others define and reach their definition of success.

The legacy that Natalie hopes to leave behind is her compassion. She wants to be remembered for giving her time to help others find their way and achieve their definition of success.