First Poem To Another World

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In May 2013, when I entered NASA’s competition to have a haiku considered for launch aboard its MAVEN spacecraft, I intended only to gesture approval at NASA for having done so much to advance human knowledge. I didn’t expect much more than to have my name included on the DVD that would be carried to Mars (promised to all entrants).

It was like adding my name to a petition to express appreciation to NASA. It appealed to me, because the first rule was that it be written in English in the form of a haiku (a three line poem consisting of seventeen syllables). Having written poetry in English for over forty years, more than half of it with a scientific theme, I thought it would be fun and easy, and make me feel as though I were making a contribution to our national space program by lauding their scientific work.

It was fun to tell my friends about it, alerting everyone I knew to get ready to vote for my poem. Since NASA encouraged getting the word out in every way possible, I was especially pleased that the local newspaper, the Santa Ynez Valley News, chose to print the story, which was then picked up by the Lompoc Record, the Santa Maria Times and the Santa Barbara Independent. And then the voting began.

I began to get e-mails first thing in the morning from friends and neighbors telling me that they had tried to vote already and had encountered difficulties. So I went to the NASA webpage where my poem was posted and found it to be working just fine, tallying votes, before I had even recorded my own ballot. So many people had responded to the early press I received that the site experienced initial difficulty with the amount of traffic to it, which was why my friends had been complaining. I was off and running and about to be swept up in the excitement of election politics.

Without a Facebook or Twitter account, I didn’t think I had much of a chance to win the competition, but, as I watched the votes tally throughout the day, I thought I might actually have a shot. There were over twelve thousand entries, and mine was ranked in the top twenty-five throughout the two weeks of public voting. My campaign to win was launched.

I contacted the television news networks with the story, and two out of three came out to interview me for the evening news in order to help their local writer garner votes. That night on TV, as I viewed my poem on the screen while the reporter read it from her news desk, I thought: I’ve won already! I got my poem read, as news, on the air, which was now broadcast to space. My poem was already headed to Mars, and beyond, at the speed of light.

There was still another week of voting, however, and now I was obsessed. I printed flyers and visited local tourist sites to distribute them. I badgered friends (not only to vote for me but to help spread the word). I posted comments to blogs of all sorts, asking for assistance from anyone with an interest in science or poetry. I started a program, requesting action instead of funding. I even placed ads on Craig’s List. I frequented libraries and coffee houses (wherever I found Wi-Fi connections and people with computers), and introduced myself to random strangers, asking for their help. I attended poetry readings to disseminate my appeal. I probably would have kissed babies, if I thought it would have helped.

Despite my exhaustive efforts, my ranking remained in the teens and twenties throughout much of the competition. I watched the gap widen quickly for the front-runners, and I confess that I became disheartened. The entry in the number one position gained a thousand-vote advantage and just to reach the third qualifying spot, I would need another five hundred votes.

Then, suddenly, on the last night of the competition, my votes began to surge.

Excitedly, I watched all my hard work begin to pay off. Vote after vote finally poured in, and I watched my ranking go from the low twenties to the high teens and finally single digits. By the time I retired for the evening, I was in sixth place, but still several hundred votes behind the next, fifth-ranked entry.

I consoled myself that I had done my best and had made it into the top ten of over twelve thousand qualified entries. It had been a good run. I had gotten publicity for my poetry, made new friends and basked in local support. Not having made it into the top three, I had not made NASA’s cut, however. My poem would not be featured on the MAVEN’s website and mine would not be among the three haiku to be included on the DVD that would be launched to Mars in November.

When I checked the next morning to see how I had done, I was pleased to see I had gotten nearly another dozen last-minute votes to my final total. The rankings were no longer posted, but I knew there was no way that I had won. In a few days, I would write my concession e-mails to all those I knew had voted for me. I was not particularly enthused to do so immediately.

Five days later, I received an e-mail from the contest director, requesting that I sign a permission form so that my poem could be used on their website. Hope springs eternal, so I asked if this meant that I was to be included aboard the mission craft, after all. I was told I would have to wait for the official announcement that would follow in another week.

When I was a child, the week before Christmas passed more quickly, but on August 8, 2013, I discovered my haiku had received “special recognition” for its literary merit by the MAVEN team. Those for whom I had written my poem had shown me their appreciation for its merit. My poem had earned its place in history, forever a part of America’s national space program and prominently included in the very first collection of poetry to be published to another world.

Receiving such adulation heartened me to compile this book. When I write on the topic of science, I hope to convey my own awe and wonder as well as the art and passion of science, often with humor. If I sometimes seem irreverent, I’d just like to say to science and scientists: I’m not laughing at you; I’m joking with you.

MAVEN successfully launched on November 18th, 2013, and has been safely orbiting Mars and relaying data since September 22, 2014.

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