The Everyday Explorer

Words & Photos: Natalie Panek

It was just before twilight as I stood on a hilltop admiring California’s Santa Cruz Mountains. The haze and fog rolling in from the Bay created a brilliant ruby red backdrop, caressing the sky like velvet. On this particular night, I travelled with a group of friends to the Lick Observatory. We drove by bus along a scenic and winding road to the summit of Mt. Hamilton for our tour of the observatory’s facilities. Our tour operator guided us into the main building and inside the dome of the 36-inch Great Lick Refractor. With the roof open to the skies above, I observed Earth’s moon and Jupiter with three of its orbiting moons. Afterwards standing outside, a shooting star passed through my field of view with a brightness and speed that lasted only an instant. I was captivated by the vastness of space and lost in the possibility of what it would feel like to travel among the stars.

I have been fascinated by space and how the universe works ever since I was a little girl. Every weekend from late May to Labour Day, my parents, two brothers and myself camped in a southwestern section of the Canadian Rockies near the Crowsnest Pass. Adventures during the day, then stargazing from our campsite were a gateway to exploration. The Big Dipper and Orion were familial signs in the night sky. Go-tos each and every time I looked up. The sky wrapped around with an endless horizon, catapulting me into a maze of glittering light. And I dreamt of one day being enveloped by that very glittering light — becoming an astronaut – a sailor of the universe.

My love for the outdoors and exploration that began as simple weekend camping trips with my family has grown over time. It inspired me to choose a career where I get to explore beyond the boundaries of Earth. For the last 20 years or so, I have been chasing the astronaut dream. Chasing a pretty lofty goal that has brought out my inner critic at every turn. I have stumbled and failed at literally every step of the way. Sometimes these stumbles and failures are a result of my inner critic. Sometimes they are caused by systemic barriers to entry that have no business being barriers at all.

In navigating the powerful hold that our inner critic often has, I am continually learning to appreciate that the magic happens when we use our vulnerability to our advantage. When we find the confidence to journey outside comfort zones. Sometimes we dip our toes in new experiences, slowly progressing until fully immersed. Other times we dive right in, choosing to swallow the fear with one quick jump. It does not matter how or why you do it, just as long as you are doing it for you.

Most opportunities that I have pursued required a lot of self-convincing. When I walked into a lecture hall full of men to join a solar powered car team, I wanted to turn around and walk right out the door (I ended up driving that solar powered car across North America with a fantastic team). When I learned how to fly, I often considered cancelling my lessons (I worked through it and got my license during university). Whenever I plan backpacking trips, I often start to talk myself out of it (a couple of my favorite backpacking trips were across part of East Greenland and Baffin Island). When I start a new project at work, I question whether I am the right person for the job (I have been building a Mars rover for the past four years!). Part of me (the inner critic) is afraid that I do not have what it takes or that I will struggle to apply what I have learned to real-life scenarios. I sometimes feel intimidated to be surrounded by people who know (or seem to know) much more than I do.

But conquering my inner critic in many ways feels like a rite of passage. In doing so we develop confidence to rely on our own judgement and decision-making skills, whether in the outdoors or in our day-to-day work. It is an opportunity to take charge, to become a leader of our own paths, and make decisions based upon our own personal capabilities. I often remind myself that my priority is learning and think less about comparing myself to others. To follow my own curiosity and instinct. To be an everyday explorer. This is when I am most happy and fulfilled. The outdoors and working in space are where I find both my freedom and my power.

We all have an inner critic; the subjective naysayer inside making us second guess setting big goals and dreaming big. We may encounter obstacles or trip over fallen logs, literally and figuratively. I challenge you to put that inner critic to good use and let it motivate you in a positive way. We can feel vulnerable and scared, yet still take steps to propel ourselves forward. The outdoors (or any other mediums that are needed to achieve our goals) are places where we should be free from judgement. Where we get from that place exactly only what we need; freedom, escape, challenge, competition, relaxation, opportunities to learn, or even a sense of community.

The only voice I focus on when venturing beyond my comfort zone whispers repeatedly: I am here for myself. I am enough.

Follow Natalie in both her outdoors and aerospace adventures on Instagram and on her website.