For scientists hoping to find life beyond Earth, Jupiter’s icy moon Europa is one of the most intriguing places in the solar system. In October 2024 NASA’s Europa Clipper mission will blast off on a five-and-a-half-year journey to Jupiter. It will be equipped with massive solar panels, several cameras, an instrument that can sniff out chemicals in the moon’s atmosphere—and a 21-line poem entitled “In Praise of Mystery: A Poem for Europa.”
The poem was written by U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón, who says she’ll be on the ground to see the spacecraft leave Earth next year in what will be her first rocket launch. Scientific American spoke with Limón about Europa, Earth and the beauty of discovery.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
What sort of relationship have you had with space throughout your life, if any?
When my parents divorced, my mom and my stepdad moved into an apartment in Sonoma, [Calif.], which is a very small town. And I remember we would sit on the rooftop at night in our sleeping bags, and we would name all of the constellations. And I was always interested in not just the stars and planets and constellations but also the sort of vastness of space. And then, to be corny, I really loved Star Trek, and I really loved Star Wars. So I’ve always had a soft spot for not just space itself but also just for the unknown and the mysteries that are still out there.
How did this project come about for you?
It was really quite wonderful. We got an e-mail from NASA, and we set up a meeting, and they told me about the Europa Clipper mission and then, at the very end, asked me if I would be interested in composing an original poem that would be engraved on the side of the spacecraft. I said yes right away, kind of overwhelmed but also knowing it was an opportunity of a lifetime. But then, I’ll admit, it was also terrifying once I realized what the assignment really was.
How familiar with Europa were you at the time? Did you do much research about it?
They mentioned a lot about what Europa was—the second [Galilean] moon of Jupiter, the icy water moon. That water is really what is intriguing the mission scientists to go forward. They wanted it to inspire me.
The initial conversation included a lot of facts and figures, but I kind of had to let that go for the poem to come to fruition. I love research, and whether I’m talking about a specific tree or a specific bird, I love to get all those facts right and all of the minor details—whether it’s the right name for a certain type of the feather or the certain kind of blossom that the magnolia has or that the magnolia tree existed before the bees. I love those kinds of facts, and they inform my work quite a bit. But they can also be a way to completely distract me from actually creating something human and real.
So I actually tried not to do too much research, and then once I finished a draft that I thought was pretty complete, I was like, “Okay, is there anything I got wrong? Is there anything I have to mention?” Because it’s not a book report. It has to have that kind of ethereal human messiness to it. I was afraid if I dove too deeply into the actual facts about Europa, it would become too much of a presentation on Europa.
Something that really struck me was that the poem is about Europa, but it’s also very much about Earth. Can you talk a little about that?
I sort of always knew that was going to happen. I knew that it would have to point to Earth in order for it to be a poem that I wanted to make. Not that space itself can’t be enough of a connection, but I think for us to feel anything about exploration, we have to remember that what exploration gives us is more information about ourselves.
I remember sitting in this beautiful palm forest with all the different types of palm fronds making this incredible sound in the wind, and I kept thinking, “Oh no, this is about the connection to Earth. This, here, where we are, this urgent planet is the best planet.” And that had to be part of the poem.
Space exploration in general, and in someplace such as Europa in particular, deals with this idea of “Is there life out there?” Did that play into writing the poem at all?
One of the things that struck me was that the poem had to have kindness in it, and it had to have a sense of appreciation for this planet. Because if, by some chance, there’s another being out there that might connect to it, I wanted them to know that, regardless of how it may seem sometimes, we love this Earth.
Is the search for life something you’ve thought about a lot?
It seems to me that anytime we’ve explored anything deeply, we never come back thinking something is less complex than we thought it was. We almost always find that there’s more intelligence, more complexity. And I think that’s true of everything: the more closely we look at something, the more we realize that we aren’t alone on many levels.
I won’t be surprised if we discover something, whatever that might be, because there’s much more out there—including much more here on this Earth that we have yet to discover. I mean, the oceans alone are such vast mysteries to us. Or, all the time, they’re discovering new mushrooms. That discovery process is really beautiful to me. I hope that what discovery does for us is help us care more about our planet and our universe and maybe ourselves.
The twin Voyager spacecraft NASA launched in the 1970s each carried a golden record, including recordings of people offering greetings in 55 languages, a range of music excerpts, photographs of humans around the world, and more. Are you familiar with those?
I am—in fact, I wrote a terrible poem about the golden record when I was a younger poet. If it was any good, I would share it with you, but it is not. It’s such a prime fodder for a poet to think about the golden record. One of my favorite facts about that is Carl Sagan’s wife [Ann Druyan] recorded her brain activity while she was in love with and thinking about Carl Sagan. The brain waves that are recorded on the golden record are a brain in love. That was what I was trying to bring to the poem—a human being in love with this planet, with this life.
What does it feel like to join this tradition of humanity sending out a little piece of its soul, as well as a little piece of its brain, on these spacecraft?
It’s a huge, overwhelming honor. But I also really love the fact that it’s poetry—even if it wasn’t my poem, to be a poem, anyone’s poem, feels really remarkable because I do think that poetry is uniquely human in many ways. And unlike the golden record, you don’t have to play it. Everything’s there.
I also love the fact that they could have put it in a font, in something computer-generated, but they chose to engrave it in my handwriting. And that, to me, is remarkable because it feels like it has to be a human endeavor: the making of the poem, the poem itself, it has to seem uniquely human because it is uniquely human. And I think in this era, when we’re concerned and thinking so much about artificial intelligence, to focus on the human aspect of this mission seems essential to what NASA is trying to accomplish.
Have you been able to see the spacecraft?
Yes, I got to visit the clean room and watch the spacecraft being assembled. It was awe-inspiring how much work and diligence and care goes into the making of a spacecraft. It is a human endeavor, too, to make the spacecraft. I was really touched by how much work goes into this kind of mission and how many people have been working on it—not just for a year or so but for 20 years sometimes.
Is there anything else you’d like to share about the poem?
In the very first initial meeting with NASA, I actually wrote down one of the lines in the poem. They kept talking about water as this essential element, the connecting element of Europa. And all I kept thinking was that we are made of water as human beings, as human animals. I wrote down in my notebook during that meeting, “We, too, are made of water,” and I love that the final draft still has that line in it.