Of more than 1,700 entries submitted to NASA’s “Power to Explore Student Challenge,” only 45 were selected for the student semi-final round. One of those students is 6-year-old Kiki Leone of Long Beach. A first grader at Emerson Elementary School, located on Long Beach’s eastside, Kiki submitted an essay that discussed the exploration of a lake located on Titan, one of the more talked-about moons of Saturn.

“I’m super proud of her,” said Kiki’s father, Mario Leone. “It’s the beginning of the future.”

NASA’s “Power to Explore” STEM Contest

“Welcome to my spacecraft Chicken-fly,” wrote Kiki. “My spacecraft is powered by NASA’s radioisotope power systems. It’s a nuclear battery that can last for 14+ years.”

The focus on the Radioisotope Power Systems (RPS) is built into the contest. The so-called “Nuclear Battery” has been used in some of NASA’s most significant projects, including space missions. The contest asked participants to write about how the power systems could serve in missions that reach for the most extreme environments in the solar system.

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As a semi-finalist, Kiki has already won a prize pack from the NASA RPS project offices, which is funding the contest. Over four thousand participants received invitations to a “Power Up” virtual event, where they learned about NASA’s work from RPS Program Manager Carl Sandifer, Kim Rink of NASA’s JPL Lab, and Nicola Fox of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

The contest is split into multiple age groups, with winners, finalists, and semi-finalists chosen for a grade K-4 division, a grade 5-8 division, and a grade 9-12 division. Fifteen semi-finalists were selected for each category. The previous year’s K-4 winner, Jason Pollack (nine years old at the time), wrote about exploring the seas on Europa, which included drilling a hole through the icy surface and dropping a mini-submarine into the deep ocean. He hoped to find life in the alien ocean.

Taking Inspiration from the Coming Totality

Kristin Jansen of NASA said, “As we’re coming into the totality of the eclipse, we wanted to highlight that when sunlight is not available, there are other options.” Kristin went on to say that Kiki’s essay featured standout creativity. “Entries like Kiki’s give NASA hope for the future if she wants to continue to do this.”

The finalists will be announced on April 8, coinciding with NASA’s broadcast of the total eclipse. The eclipse will reach its totality between 1:30 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. CDT, with prime viewing spots near major metropolitan areas, including San Antonio, Dallas, Indianapolis, and Cleveland.

An Introduction to the Artemis Generation

“It has been so exciting to see how many students across the nation have submitted essays to NASA’s Power to Explore Challenge,” said Carl Sandifer in a statement published on NASA’s RPS website. “We have been thrilled to read their creative RPS-powered mission concepts and have been inspired learning about their many ‘superpowers’ that make them the bright future of NASA—the Artemis Generation.”

Sandifer’s reference to Artemis refers to NASA’s next-generation space exploration goals, which involve constructing moon habitats for long-term exploration and scientific work.