Space Explorer Natalie Panek’s Impossible Job

9 Aug

The European ExoMars rover might be the most badass all-terrain vehicle ever built, and one of the people who played a key role in bringing it to life is Natalie Panek, who might be Canada’s most adventurous aerospace engineer. The ExoMars is a solar-powered, six-wheeled machine in which each wheel can work independently, so it can actually “walk” through 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 various depths below ground. The idea is to look for signs of past life, so it’s kind of a big deal. And it’s just the latest notch in the belt of 34-year-old Panek, who uses her background in the outdoors to guide her career in space exploration.

Panek grew up backpacking and camping most weekends with her family in Canada and has been laser-focused on becoming an astronaut since she was a kid. “We’d spend the days fly-fishing and hiking, but when it got dark, we’d light a campfire, go out, and look at the stars, trying to count the number of constellations we could recognize,” Panek says of her childhood in the woods. “After so many weekends of looking up at the sky, I had this idea that I wanted to go there.”

Panek eventually did everything she could to put herself on track to becoming an astronaut. She’s literally a rocket scientist, having earned degrees in mechanical and aerospace engineering before landing coveted internships at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and Ames Research Center during graduate school. She has a pilot’s license (lots of astronauts do) and legit adventure chops to boot, having ticked off all kinds 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 famous Explorers Club through her work in science and adventure. She did it all with the hopes that one day she’d have the opportunity to explore the final frontier in person.

natalie panek
(Courtesy Natalie Panek)

But here’s the thing about wanting to be an astronaut: it’s nearly impossible, especially if you’re Canadian. It’s strictly a numbers game. The U.S. has the largest corps of astronauts, staffing between 38 and 150 at any given time. We’ve sent 335 people into space, more than any other country in the world (Russia is a distant second). The most astronauts Canada has ever had at one time is four, and only one astronaut in the Canadian Space Agency’s current roster has ever been to space. Our neighbors to the north simply don’t devote the same amount of resources to space travel as we do. So if you’re a Canadian kid looking up at the stars and dreaming about exploring the final frontier, your opportunities are limited—even if you dedicate your entire life to giving yourself the best shot possible. Nobody knows this better than Panek. 

“There’s no real guidebook to becoming an astronaut,” Panek says. “Some of them are engineers, some are pilots, some are biologists. You kind of want to accrue all this knowledge, so that you’re in position to be in the mix when there’s a need.” 

When the Canadian Space Agency looks to fill a vacancy, it puts out an open call in the form of an astronaut-recruitment campaign. In a truly Canadian gesture, anyone is welcome to apply. More than 4,000 people did—including Panek—when Canada held a campaign to find two new astronauts in 2016. After a yearlong selection process, she made it to the final 100 applicants before ultimately being dismissed, not for a lack of skill or knowledge but because of a gray streak in her hair, which might be an indicator of an autoimmune disorder.

“It’s heartbreaking to be eliminated for something out of my control that doesn’t affect my abilities in any way,” Panek says. “It’s been a journey to process that and find the silver lining.”

For Panek, that silver lining is life here on earth. After discovering that she wouldn’t be one of Canada’s next astronauts, she rededicated herself to exploring her backyard. “I decided I would go on a mini adventure every single weekend for a year to get my mind off the rejection. I decided I would explore earth more,” she says.

Panek has always had a penchant for terrestrial discovery, like exploring Patagonia and the Grand Tetons. But her year of mini adventures helped refocus her energy and avoid the media coverage surrounding the astronaut-selection process. She paddled whitewater through the Canadian Rockies and canoed through 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 subject of a documentary, Space to Explore, about her quest to almost becoming an astronaut.

“I’ve always tried to frame the whole journey as, getting to be an astronaut would be icing on the cake,” she says. “I made sure everything I’ve done along the way would be fulfilling and would matter, even if I didn’t get to be an astronaut.” 

She also wants to inspire young women who might also be interested in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math). Panek says it’s easy for young women to lose their passion for math and science when facing a variety of obstacles in school and the workplace, while some others might not even see a career in STEM as a realistic possibility. According to Panek, one of the greatest deterrents is a lack of mentorship. “I couldn’t call an astronaut or engineer and ask them what I should study, so I decided to be that person for the next generation,” she says.

While Panek works to open doors for young scientists and would-be astronauts 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 department at MDA, a Canadian-based space tech company, where she worked on the ExoMars rover. Building that rover has been a combined effort between Europe, Canada, and Russia, and Panek is on the Canadian team responsible for developing its chassis—the wheels and the legs, or as she puts it, “all the stuff that turns it from a lander to a rover.”

natalie panek
(Courtesy Natalie Panek)

As that project wraps up, Panek is shifting her attention to building robotic arms that could be used to repair defunct satellites orbiting earth. There are at least a thousand nonoperational ones floating around our planet right now, and that doesn’t include the debris that has separated from those satellites—millions of pieces, ranging in size from a paint fleck to a screwdriver.

“Learning about how much space debris is orbiting earth, and how there’s no infrastructure to replace those broken satellites, is fascinating,” Panek says. The junk that’s orbiting earth right now is just the beginning, as private companies are vying to launch more satellites that can supply the space-based internet. There’s no system in place to repair old satellites, so space programs simply launch new ones.

“It’s like you drive your car for 15 years, and as soon as it breaks down on the highway, you just leave it there and buy another one,” Panek says. “It makes you think about how we explore. I grew up with Leave No Trace: everything you take in, you take out with you. I’ve come to appreciate how that philosophy needs to be applied to space travel, too.”

Enter Panek’s robotic arms, which would be mounted on a spacecraft that could dock with an old satellite and fix the broken components. The arm would deploy and do repairs or transfer fuel so the satellite could become functional again. While fixing dated satellites in lieu of launching new ones might make sense to adventurers, Panek says Leave No Trace is a tough sell in the aerospace world.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m the crazy person talking about the consequences of our exploration,” Panek says. “What is the balance between exploring and what we gain from those missions and what we leave behind in the process? I want people to think about how we are exploring and ask if we’re being accountable and sustainable.”

An Uber for Outdoor Guides

7 Sep

Pedro McCardell was on a solo motorcycle trip to Patagonia when he realized that he needed help. The mountains that dominated the horizon were inviting, but access was a puzzle. “I needed a local to show me around, but I had no good way to connect with them,” says the Italy-based former advertising executive. That experience led him to create Lyfx. (Silicon Valley slang for “life experience.”) The app launched in Utah, Colorado, and California in July, and aims to be the Uber or Airbnb of adventure, connecting travelers in need of beta with knowledgeable residents willing to show them around for a fee.

Lyfx isn’t the only app trying to disrupt the guiding industry. Climblife connects wandering dirtbags with would-be guides, Showaround lets international travelers book a variety of experiences led by locals, and Back40 links up venturesome vacationers with “hosts” throughout New England.

Of course, similar platforms have come and gone. In 2015, James Hamilton launched GuideHire but couldn’t keep it afloat. “It wasn’t an issue of getting people on the platform—we had plenty of guides and plenty of users,” he says. “But we couldn’t get people to book through us. They’d use us for research and then book directly with the guide.”

Hamilton thinks his timing was off and travelers weren’t willing to reserve adventures without a bit of personal interaction first. But given the ubiquity of Uber and the rise of Airbnb Experiences, the short-term-rental giant’s attempt to get into peer-to-peer activities, the market may finally be ready.

“I think people will use the service,” says Nikki Harth, co-owner of Surfhouse, a hotel and guiding outfit in Encinitas, California. Like Lyfx, Surfhouse seeks to plug guests into the local scene. “People are now spending more money on experiences than things,” he says. “When you’re surfing, having a local show you around makes the experience so much better.”

Alex Kosseff, executive director of the American Mountain Guides Association, is intrigued by the idea of guiding apps and believes they could be beneficial for guides because many don’t have the time or know-how to market themselves effectively. But he’s less sure about the legality. “Guiding on public land in this country is incredibly regulated,” Kosseff says. “Anyone taking money for that service needs to have a permit.”

To work around this, Lyfx launched with professionals that already have the necessary paperwork and requires its peer-to-peer experts to abide by any applicable laws and regulations. However, the app is leaving it up to its nonprofessional guides to obtain all permits and certifications. But a few situations, like showing someone your favorite point break, don’t require dealing with any red tape. And if Lyfx or its competitors can overcome all that, they’ll still face the hardest challenge of all: securing market share. “Until one of these apps gets traction and gains that critical mass of users,” Kosseff says, “I’m afraid they’ll continue to come and go.”

The Best Gifts for Thru-Hikers

1 Dec

So your nephew wants to drop out of law school and hike the whole Pacific Crest Trail next year. Awesome. Let his parents worry about responsible life choices—it’s your job to make sure he has the proper gear to get him through the long haul.

Not all backpacking gear is meant to handle the rigors of thru-hiking, so we asked Chris Walker, a recent Appalachian Trail north-bounder, to detail the items that proved most essential during his 2,190-mile journey. His advice for buying gear meant to last? Don’t skimp. “A lot of people I know went pretty cheap on some gear choices and ended up paying for replacements along the trail because the cheaper pieces weren’t performing well,” Walker says. “It’s best to invest up front.”


Zpacks Arc Haul Pack ($299)

thru-hiking
(Courtesy Zpacks)

It’s ultralight, exceptionally adjustable, and customizable, with all sorts of add-on options: shoulder pouches, lumbar pads, water bottle holders, and so on. It carried very well even when pushing its suggested weight limit of 40 pounds.

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Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xlite Regular Sleeping Pad ($130)

thru-hiking
(Courtesy Thermarest)

This is one of the lightest inflatable pads on the market—the regular version weighs just 12 ounces. It’s a little noisy at first but gets much quieter with frequent use. I found it very comfortable.

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Enlightened Equipment 20 Revelation Down Quilt ($285)

thru-hiking
(Courtesy Enlightened Equipment)

This quilt is ultralight and can be used as a blanket or zipped up to serve as a sleeping bag.

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Zpacks Solplex Shelter ($555)

thru-hiking
(Courtesy Zpacks)

Like everything Zpacks makes, this shelter is ultralight (made of Dyneema Composite Fabrics), but it has a decent amount of room for a single person (seven feet long, three feet wide, and four feet high at its center). It’s extremely compact and easy to set up in tight spaces.

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Zpacks Rain Kilt ($59)

thru-hiking
(Courtesy Zpacks)

This ultralight rain gear keeps your lower half dry and makes you look extremely fashionable. I also used it sometimes as a tablecloth or a cover to sit on rocks and such, and I wrapped my backpack in it when it was raining at camp.

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Altra Lone Peak 3.0 NeoShell Low Shoes ($150)

thru-hiking
(Courtesy Altra)

I tried three different pairs of shoes that didn’t work for my feet before I discovered Altra. The Lone Peak was perfect for me. A legit hike saver. You can go mid if you want more ankle support.

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Sawyer Squeeze Filter ($40)

thru-hiking
(Courtesy Sawyer)

There are plenty of water filters out there, but the Sawyer Squeeze is easy to use and clean in the field, and it’s compatible with various bottle types.

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Body Glide Balm ($10)

thru-hiking
(Courtesy REI)

This anti-chafe balm saved my hike during an incredibly hot stretch through Vermont.

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BRS 3000T Stove ($15)

thru-hiking
(Courtesy BRS)

This tiny butane stove is available for less than $20 and weighs less than an ounce. I used it before I got on the trail and for the entirety of the AT, and it’s still working flawlessly.

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Black UV Buff ($25)

thru-hiking
(Courtesy Buff)

As a man with no hair, I wanted to keep my head as protected as possible. I used my Buff every single day on the trail. It’s also useful for wiping down condensation from your tent in the morning.

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SOS in the Age of Smartwatches

23 Nov

John Zilles moved to California after college for the warm weather and the promise of outdoor adventure. He fell in love with kiteboarding, and even after he had a family, the 49-year-old cinematographer always made time to get out on the water. Earlier this month, Zilles was about a mile off the coast of Ventura, in a light wind, when he crashed making a turn and couldn’t get his kite back up.

Zilles struggled for 45 minutes to fill his kite with wind with no luck. At first, he was more frustrated than panicked. He’d been in this situation before and figured he had two hours of swimming to make it to the shore. Ditching his gear—a new hydrofoil board and kite—wasn’t an option, not just because it would have been an expensive loss, but because Zilles could use the kite and board as a makeshift raft if his situation got worse. He swam for 30 minutes, and when it didn’t seem like he’d made any progress, he thought about the sharks recently spotted in the area, and then about swimming for hours and getting nowhere.

Then Zilles remembered he was wearing his Apple Watch, which he had purchased because its cell connectivity let him stay in touch with his family even without his phone. “I can be out kiting and the kids can reach me if something goes wrong,” he says. He just didn’t expect that he’d be the one in trouble.

As companies like Samsung, LG, Huawei, and Apple have offered increasingly sport-friendly tech, watches are becoming something more: rescue devices. Some even feature a built-in SOS button that will call emergency services. Meanwhile, third-party apps have sprung up to enhance the watches’ rescue capabilities. Strava lets you share your location on runs with friends so they know where you are. Similarly, but geared toward backcountry explorers, Cairn shares your route with selected contacts, allowing them to see your location and alerting them if you’re overdue.

All this connectivity brings positives and negatives when it comes to search and rescue. One worry is that people might fall back on the technology, taking risks they shouldn’t, or even calling search and rescue in a situation where they could have self-rescued. Lost the trail? Push the button. Robert Koester, author of the search and rescue guidebook Lost Person Behavior, says there was a similar concern when satellite-linked personal GPS devices hit the market. Everyone thought it would be catastrophic for SAR because it would overload the system, Koester says. “And they sometimes do. But it also takes an incident where someone fell off a cliff and sets the search beacon—a rescue that might have required a four-day search—to a situation where rescuers just go and get the person,” he says. “So while there may be an increase in incidents, there will also be a decrease in personnel hours.”

And that’s pretty close to what happened with Zilles. A mile off the coast, he was able to dial the Ventura Harbor Patrol. He even guided rescuers directly to his location.

“Trying to find a small target, like a person in the water, on a rough day like that could’ve been tough,” says Eric Bear, one of the Ventura Harbor Patrol officers involved in the rescue. “He made a smart decision in deciding he couldn’t make it back into shore and calling for help. We always recommend kayakers and kiteboarders carry marine VHF radios so they can radio for help, but they rarely do. The fact that he was able to call from his watch was key.”

That might be the upside of technology invading every element of life these days. It’s always there when you wish it wasn’t and when your life may depend on it. “I’m always struggling to find ways to make this technology work for me without letting it rule my life,” Zilles says. “I’ve had these ‘kitemares’ before when shit goes wrong, and this was the first time I had this sort of tool to help me take care of myself.”