How One Space Scientist Embraces Her Inner Explorer While Grounded On Earth

Natalie Panek is happiest when exploring the diverse, majestic landscape on earth and beyond. Here's what fuels her during her hiking adventures.

Natalie Panek hiking through Greenland.
Photo: Natalie Panek/ Sergey Ryumin/Getty

“Every day is different. Every day is a new challenge,” says Natalie Panek, a space scientist who has contributed to high-profile space projects — like the European Space Agency’s ExoMars rover program (launching to Mars in 2022) and MDA’s satellite-servicing initiatives — about her job.

But the statement is also true for the daring treks this adventurer takes through some mind-bending wild terrain in places like Greenland. What Panek faces at work and with each hike is similar: “Both involve constant troubleshooting, brainstorming, and being creative,” she says.

It’s as clear as a perfect starry night that Panek approaches life with supreme curiosity and passion. “Being open to trying new things and having a sense of wonder leads to some awesome experiences,” she says. “And working in STEM gives me the opportunity to make a meaningful difference in the world — that’s really fulfilling.” Here, Panek shares how she equips her body and brain to live that life of wonder.

First, thank you for helping to keep our atmosphere clean. Can you break down for us what you do exactly?

"I’m an aerospace engineer, so I help build robotics for things like space stations and vehicles that explore other planets. It’s a constant challenge to dream up, design, and build technology to operate in those extreme environments. We have to problem solve for every mission. One thing I’m really proud to work on is advancing how to use robotics to repair broken satellites so they don’t become space debris. It’s important to be responsible for how we explore space. If we can fix and reuse satellites, we may be able to reduce space junk. We should all see space as our wilderness."

You have such an appreciation for nature, whether on earth or in space. What sparked your passion?

"I grew up hiking with my family. We spent almost every weekend camping from May to September. Living under the stars. It sticks with you." (

Of your many epic hikes, which have been life changers?

"I love the philosophy of embracing our inner explorer. I’ve had some phenomenal adventures in remote locations, and also close to home. Favorites have been eastern Greenland, Baffin Island in northern Canada, the Rocky Mountains in Alberta, and the Sawtooth Wilderness in Idaho. My passion is long-distance backpacking. That’s what I love — just seeing where my own two feet can take me."

What do you do to stay fit for all this activity?

"I jump rope and play Ultimate Frisbee. I always go for a walk at lunch, regardless of the weather. For me, it’s not a question — I have to be active. It reenergizes and recharges me and helps me focus, so it’s not negotiable."

What’s a typical breakfast?

"Cereal! Always cereal. I can eat it any time of day. I usually go on a streak of eating one type for a long time before changing it up. Right now I’m on a major Cinnamon Cheerios kick." (To up your fiber and protein intake, you'll want to stock your pantry with these healthy cereals.)

How do you eat for energy?

"I eat by instinct. I don’t follow a prescribed diet. It’s what I want, when I want it. The cold months are inspiring for making long, slow-cooked comfort foods. And I’ve truly never met a vegetable I didn’t love. There’s always a cauliflower in my fridge ready to be roasted."

And snacks? You must need sustenance when exploring the outdoors.

"When I’m on a hike, I’ll pack my backpack’s hip belt with mini chocolate bars, granola bars, and nuts. My dinner is usually dehydrated food because it’s light to carry, so these snacks keep me going." (

Any favorites foods?

"Popcorn. I love popcorn with salt. And cereal, of course."

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