The European ExoMars rover could be the most badass all-terrain vehicle ever constructed, and a single of the folks who played a crucial part in bringing it to life is Natalie Panek, who could be Canada’s most adventurous aerospace engineer. The ExoMars is a solar-powered, six-wheeled machine in which each wheel can operate independently, so it can basically “walk” via Mars’s soft sand dunes. When it lands on the red planet in 2021, the rover will travel across the surface, collecting and analyzing samples of organic material from numerous depths beneath ground. The concept is to appear for indicators of previous life, so it is type of a massive deal. And it is just the most up-to-date notch in the belt of 34-year-old Panek, who utilizes her background in the outdoors to guide her profession in space exploration.
Panek grew up backpacking and camping most weekends with her household in Canada and has been laser-focused on becoming an astronaut considering the fact that she was a kid. “We’d devote the days fly-fishing and hiking, but when it got dark, we’d light a campfire, go out, and appear at the stars, attempting to count the quantity of constellations we could recognize,” Panek says of her childhood in the woods. “After so numerous weekends of hunting up at the sky, I had this concept that I wanted to go there.”
Panek eventually did every thing she could to place herself on track to becoming an astronaut. She’s actually a rocket scientist, having earned degrees in mechanical and aerospace engineering before landing coveted internships at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and Ames Investigation Center throughout graduate college. She has a pilot’s license (lots of astronauts do) and legit adventure chops to boot, having ticked off all types of journeys, like backpacking across Baffin Island, trekking along Greenland’s east and west coasts, exploring the Canadian Rockies by canoe and snowshoe, and pack-rafting around Bruce Peninsula National Park. She even earned a coveted membership to the renowned Explorers Club via her operate in science and adventure. She did it all with the hopes that a single day she’d have the chance to discover the final frontier in individual.
But here’s the point about wanting to be an astronaut: it is practically not possible, specifically if you are Canadian. It is strictly a numbers game. The U.S. has the biggest corps of astronauts, staffing among 38 and 150 at any provided time. We’ve sent 335 folks into space, much more than any other nation in the globe (Russia is a distant second). The most astronauts Canada has ever had at a single time is 4, and only a single astronaut in the Canadian Space Agency’s existing roster has ever been to space. Our neighbors to the north just do not devote the exact same quantity of sources to space travel as we do. So if you are a Canadian kid hunting up at the stars and dreaming about exploring the final frontier, your possibilities are limited—even if you dedicate your complete life to providing your self the very best shot feasible. No one knows this superior than Panek.
“There’s no true guidebook to becoming an astronaut,” Panek says. “Some of them are engineers, some are pilots, some are biologists. You type of want to accrue all this expertise, so that you are in position to be in the mix when there’s a have to have.”
When the Canadian Space Agency appears to fill a vacancy, it puts out an open contact in the type of an astronaut-recruitment campaign. In a actually Canadian gesture, everyone is welcome to apply. Additional than four,000 folks did—including Panek—when Canada held a campaign to uncover two new astronauts in 2016. Soon after a yearlong choice approach, she made it to the final 100 applicants just before in the end getting dismissed, not for a lack of talent or knowledge but simply because of a gray streak in her hair, which could be an indicator of an autoimmune disorder.
“It’s heartbreaking to be eliminated for a thing out of my handle that does not impact my skills in any way,” Panek says. “It’s been a journey to approach that and uncover the silver lining.”
For Panek, that silver lining is life right here on earth. Soon after discovering that she wouldn’t be a single of Canada’s subsequent astronauts, she rededicated herself to exploring her backyard. “I decided I would go on a mini adventure each single weekend for a year to get my thoughts off the rejection. I decided I would discover earth much more,” she says.
Panek has usually had a penchant for terrestrial discovery, like exploring Patagonia and the Grand Tetons. But her year of mini adventures helped refocus her power and steer clear of the media coverage surrounding the astronaut-choice approach. She paddled whitewater via the Canadian Rockies and canoed via Algonquin Provincial Park. She spent weekends on Lake Huron, attended a dark-sky festival in Jasper, and participated in an Arc’teryx climbing summit. She also became the topic of a documentary, Space to Discover, about her quest to virtually becoming an astronaut.
“I’ve usually attempted to frame the complete journey as, getting to be an astronaut would be icing on the cake,” she says. “I produced certain every thing I’ve carried out along the way would be fulfilling and would matter, even if I didn’t get to be an astronaut.”
She also desires to inspire young ladies who could also be interested in STEM fields (science, technologies, engineering, and math). Panek says it is simple for young ladies to drop their passion for math and science when facing a range of obstacles in college and the workplace, although some other individuals could not even see a profession in STEM as a realistic possibility. According to Panek, a single of the greatest deterrents is a lack of mentorship. “I couldn’t contact an astronaut or engineer and ask them what I ought to study, so I decided to be that individual for the subsequent generation,” she says.
When Panek operates to open doors for young scientists and would-be astronauts right here on earth, she’s not turning her back on space. Now she’s focusing on cleaning it up. Panek is the senior engineer in the mission-systems division at MDA, a Canadian-primarily based space tech organization, exactly where she worked on the ExoMars rover. Developing that rover has been a combined effort among Europe, Canada, and Russia, and Panek is on the Canadian group accountable for establishing its chassis—the wheels and the legs, or as she puts it, “all the stuff that turns it from a lander to a rover.”
As that project wraps up, Panek is shifting her interest to developing robotic arms that could be utilized to repair defunct satellites orbiting earth. There are at least a thousand nonoperational ones floating about our planet proper now, and that does not contain the debris that has separated from these satellites—millions of pieces, ranging in size from a paint fleck to a screwdriver.
“Learning about how a lot space debris is orbiting earth, and how there’s no infrastructure to replace these broken satellites, is fascinating,” Panek says. The junk that is orbiting earth proper now is just the starting, as private businesses are vying to launch much more satellites that can provide the space-primarily based net. There’s no technique in location to repair old satellites, so space applications just launch new ones.
“It’s like you drive your auto for 15 years, and as quickly as it breaks down on the highway, you just leave it there and purchase a different a single,” Panek says. “It tends to make you assume about how we discover. I grew up with Leave No Trace: everything you take in, you take out with you. I’ve come to appreciate how that philosophy requirements to be applied to space travel, also.”
Enter Panek’s robotic arms, which would be mounted on a spacecraft that could dock with an old satellite and repair the broken elements. The arm would deploy and do repairs or transfer fuel so the satellite could turn out to be functional once again. When fixing dated satellites in lieu of launching new ones could make sense to adventurers, Panek says Leave No Trace is a difficult sell in the aerospace globe.
“Sometimes I really feel like I’m the crazy individual speaking about the consequences of our exploration,” Panek says. “What is the balance among exploring and what we achieve from these missions and what we leave behind in the approach? I want folks to assume about how we are exploring and ask if we’re getting accountable and sustainable.”
Lead Photo: Courtesy Natalie Panek