U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón’s ode is headed for the stars

U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón’s ode is headed for the stars

Away from the big-city lights in Sonoma, a young Ada Limón spent countless hours peering out at the stars with her dad’s telescope.

“I have always loved space. I’ve always loved stars. I’ve loved looking out of telescopes,” Limón says. “I’ve always loved seeing if I could figure out which was the Big Dipper and Little Dipper. Growing up in Sonoma, it was a great time for stargazing.”

This fall, something out among the stars will be staring back at Limón, who grew up to become the U.S. poet laureate. In October, when NASA launches the Europa Clipper spacecraft to study Jupiter’s moon, Europa, the vessel will be engraved with a new work of Limón’s. “In Praise of Mystery: A Poem for Europa” extols the marvel of space and the sublime beauties of our home planet. Any aliens joyriding in the neighborhood will be able (assuming their English proficiency) to read beautiful lines about “the whale song, the songbird singing its call in the bough of a wind-shaken tree.”

Being published in London or Japan may be all right for some poets. But to have her work zoom 1.8 billion miles through the Jupiter system, on a mission that includes nearly 50 flybys of Europa, is beyond cool for the Lexington, Kentucky-based artist.

“The thought of being able to speak not just to an audience of poetry lovers, but to really anyone who’s a member of our planet felt like such a huge opportunity — not to mention, anyone who might be beyond our planet,” she says.

That’s right – we’re talking the possibility of extraterrestrial life in Europa’s suspected ice-covered ocean, which plucks at the poet’s sci-fi fandom.

“Not to be geeky, but I was also someone that loved ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Star Wars’ – the ‘Star Wars’ franchise are some of my favorite movies. I think I was always intrigued by what space offers in terms of possibilities.”

MacArthur Fellow Ada Limón is the current U.S. poet laureate. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced the 2023 class of fellows, often known as recipients of the “genius grant” on Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2023. (John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation via AP Photo) 

So how’d Limón get roped up in this mission in the first place?

It turns out NASA has a long history of sending human artifacts into space, on the chance that future people/things/sentient goos discover them. The Golden Record that launched on two Voyager spacecrafts in 1977 carried recordings of thunder and whales, an Ansel Adams photo, the anatomy of human sex organs and a written message from President Jimmy Carter. The record is now a fun historical factoid, but at the time, had folks concerned it would give away our position. Sir Martin Ryle, the Astronomer Royal of England, believed that for “all we know, any creatures out there were malevolent or hungry, and once they knew of us, they might come to attack or eat us.”

That hasn’t happened yet, despite NASA sending a diagram of our solar system on Pioneer 10 and 11, LEGO figurines of Roman deities on the Juno mission and a DVD of haiku on the MAVEN mission to Mars. And now it’s a 21-line poem from Limón, engraved on a tantalum-metal plate in her own handwriting, accompanied by a microchip bearing more than 700,000 names of people who “signed” the poem online.

Choosing Limón for this mission was a no-brainer, says Robert Pappalardo, a Jet Propulsion Laboratory fellow and Europa Clipper project scientist.

“We wanted to find the right person to convey a concise message that could express the excitement and wonder of exploring another ocean world,” says Pappalardo. “Poems can convey big ideas in compact spaces – so who better to craft such a message than the poet laureate? We were absolutely thrilled when Limón replied positively to NASA’s request.”

Sitting down to write, the poet found herself facing a roadblock, penning 19 drafts that “weren’t that great,” she says. “It was a much harder task than I’d ever been given,” she says. “It took me a really long time to realize that in order for this particular poem to work, it was going to have to be a collective poem.”

The end result turns the eye inward to focus on humanity’s experience on Earth. It dips hard into the theme of water, which is what this NASA mission is all about, in lines such as: “And it is not darkness that unites us, not the cold distance of space, but the offering of water, each drop of rain, each rivulet, each pulse, each vein.”

“I think that when we talk about space exploration and ocean exploration and any kind of time when we are deeply looking into and exploring our world, we always have to remember that exploration is teaching us about ourselves,” says Limón. “The fact we exist right here in this moment, with this incredible planet that we live on, is a real miracle on so many levels. So in order to embrace the idea of exploration and going out into the cold, dark existence of space, I needed to really come back to the wonders and beauty of the Earth.”

Needless to say, NASA likes “In Praise of Mystery.”

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“Ada Limón’s poem is perfect in relating everyday human experience to the wonder of planetary exploration,” says Pappalardo. “This message from Earth, carried by the Europa Clipper spacecraft, connects us to another ocean world.”

Limón’s work on this project brought her to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, where she met the team and observed the Clipper being assembled in a cleanroom. “There are people who have been interested in this mission for 30 or 40 years, so getting to meet some of them was just a real honor and privilege,” she says.

And she’ll be at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida this October for the launch, and she’ll perform a reading of her poem as the spacecraft soars into the great beyond. And what if, perhaps centuries or millennia from now, alien lifeforms do intercept and decipher her ode?

“I hope if that were to happen, they would understand that we as a human species really do love and cherish our Earth, even though it often doesn’t look like that,” she says. “I’d hope the poem would point to our wonder and awe at the Earth’s beauty.”