NASA Is Sending These Poems to Mars

Meanwhile, Congress will likely have a showdown over NASA funding

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Ali Jarekji / REUTERS

A boy poses with an image of Mars

Washington’s budget war has finally reached the final frontier: the U.S. space program. And with Congress headed towards a showdown over NASA funding, the agency is finding creative ways to win public support. Its latest method? Why, a good old-fashioned haiku contest, of course.

Outreach officials working for the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN) are employing the Japanese-style poem to involve non-rocket scientists in the next mission to the red planet. In May they invited the public to enter poems, promising to select five winners that will be adhered to the MAVEN before it is launched towards Martian airspace. A 20-day launch window will begin Nov. 18.

More than 15,000 entries were submitted by space geeks and poets the world over. A couple thousand were disqualified (too long; too short; totally inappropriate), leaving about 12,500. The public voted online, and the five top vote-getters (only two of which came from Americans) were announced Thursday. Here’s a sample:

Thirty-six million
miles of whispering welcome.
Mars, you called us home.
–Vanna Bonta, USA
It’s funny, they named
Mars after the God of War
Have a look at Earth
–Benedict Smith, United Kingdom
But to be honest, many of the also-rans are at least as interesting as the winners. Like this clever homage to Brokeback Mountain:

Keep checking you out
Mars, not sure you’re right for me
But I can’t quit you

Another poet seemed to describe some kind of planetary mating ritual:


Several writers strayed off topic, with amusing results. This one may have been trying to explain a treasured Earthling delicacy to any aliens who might encounter the haiku:

Choose your own flavour
Pizza is a food perfect
Cook it, eat it, done.

Other entries were poignant, even heartbreaking–including this departure from the traditional haiku 5-7-5 syllable structure:

we are old
and love space
would have liked to visit mars

The winning works, along with personal names anyone submitted (and can still submit), will be burned onto a DVD, which will be attached to the MAVEN before it leaves the planet. Once in orbit around Mars, the vessel will send back data scientists hope will explain how the planet’s climate changed and the history of its habitability. If the MAVEN lasts as long as its fuel allows, the poems should stay in orbit for seven years or more. After that, those coded words will reenter the atmosphere of Mars and incinerate.

“It’s a reflection of how art and poetry work,” says Stephanie Renfrow, who spearheaded the contest for MAVEN. “They don’t necessarily last forever. Sometimes those things are taken in and appreciated and then we let them go.”

Some fiscal hawks might say the same of generous NASA funding. A committee-approved bill in the Senate promises the space agency a full billion dollars more than a measure making its way through the House. To put the debate in haiku form:

Some want costs cut now
Others think NASA needs cash
Programs in pickles?