Twelve Thousand Poets . Pen Haiku for Mars Mission . Art Melds with Science

Certain things bring out the writer in us. Among them is wonder.

More than 12,000 people, inspired by the upcoming Mars Atmospheric and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) mission, have submitted haiku musing about the red planet, celebrating the voyage and otherwise waxing poetic about everything from taxpayer-funded space exploration to galactic peace.

The three winning poems, scheduled to be announced today, will ride on the spacecraft set to launch this fall. The mission’s Boulder-based organizers held the contest partly to increase awareness about the project and partly to involve right-brainers in a decidedly left-brain endeavor.

At least in theory, the traditional and relatively five-seven-five syllable Japanese style of poetry form allows school-aged writers to compete with even the most accomplished bards. It also gives word junkies who may not have much knowledge about space exploration equal footing with science geeks who may not be as talented poets.

“We didn’t want to have to judge long treatises against simple ‘Howdy Alien’ messages,” says Stephanie Renfro, head of education and outreach for the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado’s Going to Mars Campaign. “We were looking for a way that offers a voice to everyone. We wanted to give earthlings a chance to think about the beauty of the universe and make a personal connection with Mars.”

Haiku submissions opened May 1 and closed July 1. Public voting started earlier this month and ended Monday. Those who missed the poetry contest deadline have until September 10 to submit their names to be launched on the MAVEN,

As of recently, according to the website, the top-vote-getter was the following haiku, which is less about Mars than the state of affairs on our own planet:

It’s funny, they named
Mars after the God of War
Have a look at Earth

Another popular entry ponders the distance between the two planets:

Thirty-six million
miles of whispering welcome.
Mars, you called us home.

Certain participants, it seems, aren’t just poets, but also self-promoters adept at carpet-bombing several forms of social media with cyber-pleas to vote for their entries.

Given that it would take days to read all entries, most haiku submitted remain in virtual invisibility. Take, for example, the following poem written by this journalist in Denver:

Beyond our science
Is that we need you to know
We were here, alive

The poem sat unnoticed until my 8-year-old son found it under “haiku by search term,” took pity on his mom and cast his vote of support.

It turns out his ma the journalist didn’t read the fine print about the mission. What she didn’t know when writing her wildly unpopular haiku is that the MAVEN is unmanned. She also didn’t realize that the spacecraft won’t actually land on Mars, but orbit around the planet exploring until the mission is over and it enters Mars’ atmosphere and burns away. These facts were not lost on her second-grader and his classmates, who had been taught the harsh realities of the Martian atmosphere and the impermanence of their words.

“Oh yeah, all our haikus — smithereens,” explained her 8-year-old, all too happy to provide noises of what he figures the spacecraft and poems might sound like exploding.

There is, no doubt, a certain sense of fatality in a contest in which three poets beat out about 12,000 other writers, never to have their work read by Martians or future visitors to Mars. The journalist raised her disappointment with Renfro who patiently explained that the MAVEN program is science-based and, at least so far, no intelligent life has been found on Mars that would be able to read haiku.

“The readers are here on Earth,” she said.

Renfro was quick with this spin for kids (or adults) disheartened to know the poems won’t land on Mars and there’s no possibility of them being recited by aliens:

“You can feel good because you sat down, thought deeply about Mars and wrote a poem,” she said. “You can feel good that your poem is about the journey, even if it’s not part of the destination.”

“It’s cool that it’s just orbiting because, to me, poetry is ephemeral in the moment that we read it. It doesn’t bother me at all that these poems are ephemeral.”

Renfro’s ephemeral poetic journey has inspired students from around the globe, including some whose submissions were scrapped because of a rule that entries need to be written in English.

A class of 1st and 2nd graders took umbrage with the English-only rule. As much as “we love poetry” and “it makes our lives bright,” wrote the students of Suparna Kudesia’s class at Denver’s Logan School, “We don’t really agree that the haiku needs to be written only in English because people around the world who might like to do it but cannot write in English may not be able to do it.”

Ransom Christofferson from the Boulder Laboratory’s office of communications and outreach responded that he agrees that “the contest would be better if we accepted entries in other languages, considering the worldwide nature of the contest (and it would be even better if entries could be submitted by mail, as many people in other countries have limited or no internet access).” But, he explained, “NASA is very strict about what content appears on their websites, or in this case, on a website that they provide funding for, so we need to ensure that all offensive entries are removed before the haiku are displayed on the site.” Filtering them manually is an impossible task, he said. And the lab’s software filters don’t always work. As an example, he cited the following haiku that the filter didn’t catch.

It’s red, it is round
And we keep probing it, but-
It’s Uranus.

“Keep in mind that if you translate this into another language, the double entendre of the word ‘Uranus’ is lost, and this haiku would seem perfectly clean (although perhaps a bit strange),” Christofferson wrote.

“You may or may not agree with our reasons for limiting entries to English only, but I hope you now understand that we are not being ignorant or discriminatory–we are just trying to be proactive about preventing rude and offensive content being seen, especially by children (in the US and other countries), as we expect young visitors to our site,” he added.

In total, about 2,500 poems had to be tossed because they were written in another language, didn’t meet the 17-syllable haiku format or otherwise were deemed unsuitable. Poems that fell in the “inappropriate category” contained foul language, included references to certain body parts, were embedded with computer code advertising products or, as Renfro puts it, “looked like they might download something terrible into your machine.”

Upon launch, which is scheduled in November, the three poems along with a winning piece of artwork by a kindergarten class in the Boulder Valley School District will be burned on a DVD and adhered to the outside of the spacecraft with Velcro, which Renfro assures me will withstand the pressure of take-off and vast temperature changes of the voyage.

“What if it gets wet?” I asked.

“Well, that would be great because it would mean we found water,” she answered.

And how will she be sure the DVD, with its Velcro adhesive, will actually make it to the Martian orbit, especially if there are no cameras on the MAVEN aimed at it?

Renfro paused.

“Well, I guess because the engineers tell me it will,” she said. “In a situation like this, you’ve got to trust what the engineers say.”


  1. Thank you Susie! And thank you Suparna for taking our kids on a wonder-filled journey to Mars!

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