Ainsley Martin.
Courtesy photo.

Look up the word “ambitious” in the dictionary and you might see a photo of Rio Rancho home-schooler, Eagle Scout and Rams soccer player Ainsley Martin.

Academically a junior, Martin was recently announced by NASA and Future Engineers as one of 155 semifinalists in the Artemis Moon Pod Essay Contest, a national competition that asked students to imagine leading a one-week expedition at the Moon’s South Pole.

On Wednesday, the contest will be narrowed to nine national finalists, who will be interviewed about their essays. In May, the grand prize winners will be announced, each of whom will win a family trip to attend NASA’s Artemis I launch at Kennedy Space Center, according to a news release.

The Artemis Moon Pod Essay Contest was issued in collaboration with NASA’s Artemis Program, which expects to land the first woman and the next man on the moon. The Artemis Program will use what is learned on and around the moon to take the next giant leap: sending astronauts to Mars, according to the release.

Approximately 14,000 essays were received from K-12 students across the country and over 1,000 eligible judge volunteers comprised of educators, professionals and space enthusiasts helped review them, according to the release.

NASA plans to fly a digital copy of all 14,000 essays around the moon aboard Artemis I.

Martin received an Artemis prize pack, along with an opportunity to attend a series of virtual Artemis Explorer Sessions with NASA experts.

“I found (the contest) online,” she said. “I really like doing local competitions; competitions are one of my favorite ways to learn things.”

In this one, she said, “You had to design a mission to the moon and think about what technology, what would you bring, what kind of people would be best for it and how are they prepared to face the problems that they’re going to come up with. … Why would you want to do something on the South Pole in the first place?”

The early days
Born in California, she came to New Mexico and lived in Albuquerque, where her mother has family members, for a few years before relocating in Rio Rancho four or five years ago. Her father, Paul, is a sergeant with the Albuquerque Police Department and her mother, Alison, is a helicopter pilot.

She’s been home-schooled since second grade, and playing soccer since she was 4.

“There’s a lot of flexibility to it,” this fast-talking 17-year-old explained. “Like, I get to spend my entire Friday doing Science Olympiad with my home school team; we won state the last two years, so that was exciting.”

Her fascination with outer space, she recalled, began long ago: “I wanted to be an astronaut since I was tiny…

“There’s so much stuff that we don’t know about yet,” she said, “Like how zero-G (no gravity) affects how much plants can suck in water. You’d think we’d have studied that by now. We don’t a lot of different things — we don’t know why the universe is expanding; we just know that it is. … So many cool things to discover.”

In her rare free time, she said, “For the last two years, I was trying to earn every Boy Scout merit badge, which is something less than 500 scouts in 110 years of scouting have done. It’s about 137 merit badges.”

Soccer vs. space
Given the choice between being an astronaut or U.S. Olympic soccer player, Martin would prefer the pitch.

“Soccer is one of my favorite things,” she said. “I love the competitive aspect of it. You learn so many things: discipline, work ethic, sacrifices. It’s healthy; it’s fun; you learn leadership and communication, just hang out with friends, and work hard to learn skills.”
“She’s very dedicated person,” said Rams coach Uwe Balzis. “She has very good ball skills and she’s always aware of what’s going on around her on the field.

“She loves soccer — obviously. And she wants to get better,” he added. “She’s getting better every year.”

She’s going places, parlaying her skills on the pitch to return to California.

“I recently got a scholarship to the college I wanted to play soccer at, so I’m very excited about that,” she said. “It’s Westmont College (Santa Barbara, Calif.); it’s like a five-minute drive from the beach.”

She competes in every drill against her sister, Sierra, and thinks of herself as the Martin valedictorian for the Class of 2022.

“I’ve been very blessed because I have a dad and four siblings that play soccer; my dad did track for Stanford and he designs very good practices for us,” she said.

“I think soccer really helps academically,” she added. “You really learn how to work hard and really go toward things, even on days when you don’t feel like it.”

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Gary Herron | Observer staff writer