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3 students snag Artemis moon launch invites through NASA essay contest

From left to right, students Austin Pritts, Taia Saurer and Amanda Gutierrez won an essay contest for their visions of lunar exploration and have been invited to the launch of Artemis 1.
From left to right, students Austin Pritts, Taia Saurer and Amanda Gutierrez won an essay contest for their visions of lunar exploration and have been invited to the launch of Artemis 1. (Image credit: NASA)

Three students will get the chance to watch the first uncrewed Artemis mission launch to the moon after winning an essay contest about their visions for lunar exploration.

The selected essays came from nearly 14,000 entries received by NASA and Future Engineers (a platform for student challenges). United States students wrote about who they would include in a "pod" that would go to the planned landing location of the Artemis program at the south pole of the moon.

More than 1,000 online volunteers (including educators and professionals) reviewed the initial entries and winnowed those down to 155 semifinalists in March. After another selection round bringing the finalists to nine students, each of the finalists did virtual interviews with four NASA judges making the decision about awarding the prizes.

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"I can't tell you how inspiring and energizing it's been to read these essays and see the students' enthusiasm and creativity in action," Mike Kincaid, NASA's associate administrator for the Office of STEM Engagement, said in a statement. "The future of space exploration is in good hands."

The contest opened for K-12 students in September 2020 under the administration led by President Donald Trump, which planned to put boots on the surface in 2024. The nascent administration of President Joe Biden has committed to continuing Artemis, but has given no word yet about sticking to the timeline. However, the Artemis 1 mission around the moon may lift off later in 2021 than planned, after delays due to Space Launch System hiccups a few months ago.

In NASA's words, here is what the winning students wrote about, along with links to their essays. Each student and their family have an invitation to travel to NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida to watch the Artemis 1 mission launch.

  • "My Mission to the Moon" (Austin Pritts, kindergarten through fourth grade category) tells the tale of a daring Moon Pod crew consisting of a test pilot/navigator, chemist and mechanical engineer who establish a permanent lunar research facility powered by Kilopower Reactor Using Stirling Technology (KRUSTY).
  • "One Week on the Moon — The Artemis Adventure" (Taia Saurer, fifth through eighth grade category) calls for a four-person crew — including the first woman to step onto the moon — to build a habitat for future astronauts using a combination of lunar soil and a fibrous fungal material called mycelium.
  • "Dream Big Moon Pod" (Amanda Gutierrez, ninth through twelfth grade category) follows a three-person crew of a chemist, hydrologist and astronautical engineer as they install an endothermic electrolysis reactor, designed to provide fuel and oxygen for future crews at the moon's Shackleton Crater.

The 13,898 "moon pod" essays will fly on a USB flash drive aboard Artemis 1, and NASA will send a signed certificate to each participating student. 

The 155 semi-finalists will also receive a series of "virtual Artemis Explorer Sessions with NASA experts, along with an Artemis prize pack filled with fun educational materials," NASA stated. The nine finalists will receive an invitation to the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston with a parent "to learn more about lunar exploration," NASA added.

The "Moon Pod Essay Contest" is part of NASA's Artemis student challenges that are meant to engage students in engineering and design work associated with human spaceflight technologies.

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Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell is a contributing writer for Space.com who is one of the few Canadian journalists to report regularly on space exploration. She is the author or co-author of several books on space exploration. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Dakota in Space Studies, and an M.Sc. from the same department. She also holds a bachelor of journalism degree from Carleton University in Canada, where she began her space-writing career in 2004. Besides writing, Elizabeth teaches communications at the university and community college level, and for government training schools. To see her latest projects, follow Elizabeth on Twitter at @howellspace.