Space Flight Dolphin

An Art-and-Technology Payload for the Space Shuttle

Richard Clar

An inflatable dolphin sculpture/satellite (Fig. l) will be deployed from the cargo bay of the U.S. Space Shuttle into low earth orbit. After deployment, Space Flight Dolphin will transmit a signal modulated by dolphin "voices" that may be detected or sensed by extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI). As the sculpture/satellite orbits the Earth, the dolphin voices will be monitored in various museums around the world, providing a link between different people and cultures on our own planet. Space Flight Dolphin will add to the history of human beings communicating through art with symbols that transcend the boundaries of time and culture.

Fig. 1. Space Flight Dolphin, rendering of deployed satellite/ sculpture in low earth orbit, 1991. The dolphin will be constructed from Nitinol, a "shape memory" alloy that is activated by sunlight in space. The aluminum polyhedron housing will contain electronics, batteries and solar cells. (Illustration: Edgar Duncan)


A 1975 NASA study states:

Only a few decades ago most astronomers believed that planetary systems were extremely rare, that the solar system and the habitat for life that earth provides might well be unique in the galaxy. At the same time, so little was known about the chemical basis for the origin of life that this event appeared to many to verge on the miraculous . No serious program for detecting extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) could arise in such an intellectual climate. Since then numerous advances in a number of apparently diverse sciences have eroded the reasons for expecting planetary systems and biogenesis on suit able planets to be unlikely. Indeed, theory today suggests that planetary systems may be the rule around solar-type stars, and that the Universe, far from being barren, may be teeming with life, much of it highly evolved [ 1 ].

In November 1974, Frank Drake, then director of the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center at Arecibo, Puerto Rico, sent the first intentional interstellar message aimed at ETI. Beamed from the massive 300-m dish at Arecibo, the world's largest radio telescope, the message was sent to the globular cluster M13 in the constellation of Hercules. Since Arecibo is 24,000 light years away, the message will take 48,000 years from the time that it was sent for an "immediate" answer to be received. The 3-min message to M13 is in binary code - one signal represents "O's" and the other represents "l's." The arrangement of the "O's" and "l's" produces recognizable patterns such as a figure representing a human being, a radio dish and a set of coordinates for our location in the Milky Way, thus revealing information about the inhabitants and whereabouts of planet Earth.

Ronald N. Bracewell, of Stanford University's Space Telecommunications and Radioscience (STAR) Laboratory, California, contributed a paper to the Conference on Life in the Universe, held at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Ames Research Center, 19-20 June 1979 . Entitled "Manifestations of Advanced Civilizations" [2], the paper lists four categories for the modes of information transfer that ETI might utilize. These are: (1) Electromagnetic Waves, (2) Other Waves, (3) Matter Transfer and (4) Exotica.

In the category of "Other Waves," Bracewell mentions "Alfven waves or any mixture of magnetic-material wave motion, including shock waves" [3]. I propose that magnetohydrodynamic waves, rather than radio waves, might be an appropriate communication mode for Space Flight Dolphin. Since the Galaxy is permeated by magnetic field lines, technologically advanced civilizations on other planets in deep space must be aware of the magnetic force around them and that force may be a means of galactic communication. On the basis of this thought, I suggest to attempt contact by magnetoacoustic waves, causing a cross-section of the magnetic field to change from a normal steady state to a dynamic state during a very small period of time. A sudden change in a cross-section of the magnetic field will be opposed by the lines of force encompassed by the cross-section under perturbation. The magnetic field at this point will respond by a dynamic change, attempting to shorten and strengthen these lines of force, opposing the change that is disturbing its status quo. This change will respond along the entire cross-section.

Technologically advanced civilizations on distant planets may have developed instrumentation capable of detecting changes in the magnetic field. They would immediately be aware of an attempted contact and could respond accordingly.

In the category of "Matter Transfer," Bracewell favors the idea of sending various types of probes and even suggests the use of viruses. Utilizing methods of molecular biology, a message may be microscopically coded onto a long molecule. These molecules could be propelled into space as small probes [4].
The element of water is a basis for biogenesis; therefore, the element of water as a foundation for life in the Universe plays an important role in the search for ETI. It is possible that highly intelligent species have evolved advanced technological civilizations on other water-based planets with communication modes resembling those of dolphins rather than those of human beings.



Dolphins have been on earth in their present form for a considerably longer period of time than have humans. They have shown remarkable adaptability to their environment. About 25 million years ago in the early Miocene era, Delphinidae, the modern dolphin, began to appear and was common in the seas within the next 10 million years [5]. The bottle-nose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) has a brain about 20% larger than that of a human. Computing capability and memory size are determined by the size of the mammalian brain [6].

Human communication is conducted for the most part through either verbal abstraction or visual imagery. Visual input in dolphins is only one-tenth that of humans. We cannot receive nearly as much information through our ears as we can through our eyes. However, in the cetacean world, imaging is primarily in the acoustic metaphor [7]. Dolphins can transmit and receive sound in water at much higher frequencies than can humans, enabling dolphins to convey 20 times more information than we can per unit of time. "In other words, in the acoustic sphere, we have reversed our relative position in relation to that in the visual sphere. The dolphin receives almost as much information through his ear as we do from our eye," according to medical scientist John Lilly [8].

There is an analogy in the way dolphins communicate on earth and how they might communicate in the vast oceans of deep space. A signal of dolphin "voices" transmitted by magnetoacoustic waves might be recognizable to ETI.



There are numerous examples of the dolphin motif in art - dolphins are found on coins, ceramics, painting and sculpture. Some examples of the motif are Eros riding a dolphin, Aphrodite riding a dolphin, and Taras of Tarentum on a dolphin (Fig. 2). Greek mythology abounds with tales revolving around the dolphin. There is, for example, the story of Arion, who in the seventh century s.c. was returning to Greece from South Italy. The Corinthian sailors with whom he was traveling planned to rob and kill him once they reached the open sea. As a last request, Arion asked if he could sing to his lyre before being thrown into the ocean. The sound of his music was so sweet that it summoned the dolphins. When Arion was thrown into the sea, one of the dolphins safely carried him to the Cliffs of Taenarum. In thanks to Poseidon, Arion erected in Taenarum a bronze statue of a dolphin rider [9].



Fig. 2. Silver Greek coin depicting Taras of Tarentum, 281-272 B.C. Taras was a son of Poseidon. The ancient city in South Italy that bore his name was called by the Romans Tarentum. This coin is an example of one of many variations of dolphin motifs found in ancient Greek art. (Collection of Peggy Clar)

Fig. 3. Rendering of Chumash Indian rock painting in red pigment. Found on the ceiling of a cave in San Luis Obispo, California, this painting is thought to represent celestial porpoises circling the great seas surrounding the Upper World. It was most likely created in the past 300 years [17].


Several years after I started work on Space Flight Dolphin, I made an interesting discovery. In Santa Barbara, California, 100 miles north of Los Angeles, a fountain bearing a dolphin sculpture was dedicated in one of the town plazas. The side of the fountain bore a symbol (Fig. 3) that was a reproduction of a Chumash Indian rock painting found on the ceiling of a cave in San Luis Obispo, California, 120 miles away. One interpretation of this rock painting, given that it is on the ceiling of the cave, is that it represents celestial porpoises circling the great seas surrounding the "Upper World" [10] . Although it would be difficult to fix an exact date on this pictograph, it was most likely created in the past 300 years [ l l ] .


Human beings communicate through art with symbols that transcend the boundaries of time and culture. It seems appropriate to attempt communication with ETI through the medium of a dolphin, a symbol of intelligence and folklore for many cultures on earth. The gesture of putting a dolphin sculpture/ satellite in space says something about two intelligent species on earth. It recognizes that intelligence itself is an evolving concept that can take many forms throughout the Universe. As the sculpture/satellite orbits our planet, a radio downlink will enable thousands of people in museums and other locations on earth to listen to the dolphin message as it is transmitted into space.



The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Get-Away Special (GAS) payload #445 [12] will be an integration of art, science and technology [13]. From this payload's 5-cu-ft canister flown aboard the U.S. Space Shuttle, Space Flight Dolphin will be deployed in space.

NASA's GAS program is part of the space shuttle's Space Transportation System (STS). On each shuttle flight, one or more "primary payloads" will be carried in the payload bay. On some flights, these payloads will not occupy the total volume and weight available, and the balance can be devoted to GAS payloads. The GAS program presents relatively low cost access to space, with launch services for each 5-cu-ft, 20~1b GAS canister starting at $10,000 (Fig. 4). For Space Flight Dolphin, the canister will be fitted with a full-diameter, motorized door assembly and an ejection mechanism that will deploy the sculpture/satellite (Fig. 5). Both of these features are possible at additional cost. The maximum satellite weight is 150 Ib.

In order to qualify for the GAS pro gram, the payload must be justified in terms of human/technical benefit. An art payload must satisfy this NASA requirement. To do this for Space Flight Dolphin, I created an experiment based on communication with extraterrestrial intelligence (CETI). I used much of NASA's own research in the area of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence as a basis for this requirement. I received a letter, dated 18 April 1986, approving the concept of my project from Clarke Prouty, Acting Manager of the GAS pro gram at NASA headquarters.



Fig. 5. Spring-activated ejection system used to deploy small satellite from Get-Away-Special (GAS) canister. (Drawing: NASA, Goddard Space Flight Center)

Fig. 4. NASA Get-Away-Special (GAS) canister with motorized door assembly. This canister is 5 cu ft (net), measures 28.25 x 19.75 in., and carries a payload of up to 200 Ib.




The approximately life-sized dolphin sculpture/satellite will be constructed using 55-Nitinol wire, a memory alloy. Nitinol is a nickel-titanium alloy developed by the Naval Ordnance Laboratory, White Oak, Maryland. This alloy has a "shape memory" that allows it to be bent, twisted or compressed plastically out-of shape at room temperature. Upon heating to 150° (which can be achieved with sunlight in space), the deformed Nitinol springs back to its original shape. There is a certain poetry in this metamorphic quality of Nitinol that makes it appealing for art in space. An engineering support team has been assembled and is currently working on the preliminary structural design of Space Flight Dolphin. Selection of the dolphin's message that will be digitized and encoded on a microprocessor is in progress.



Heaven and earth are large, yet in the whole of space they are but as a small grain of rice.... It is as if the whole of empty space were a tree, and heaven and earth were one of its fruits. Empty space is like a kingdom, and heaven and earth no more than a single individual person in that kingdom. Upon one tree there are many fruits, and in one kingdom many people. How unreasonable it would be to suppose that besides the heaven and earth which we can see there are no other heavens and no other earths!

- Teng Mu, thirteenth-century philosopher [14]


In the attempt to communicate with or search for extraterrestrial intelligence [15], we seek an answer to the important question "Are we alone?" In asking this question we want to know: can a technological civilization reach the stage where we are today - with the means to end all life on our planet - and survive beyond that point? Perhaps on other planets, intelligent life more technologically advanced than ours has dealt with this momentous problem and can provide us with answers.



Space Flight Dolphin is just a beginning, a symbol waiting to be discovered on the wall of a cave called outer space. In outer space, where art, science and philosophy will eventually blend, the opportunity to contribute to the improvement of the human condition and quality of life is vast. In the words of Jean-Paul Sartre: "Man is not the sum of what he has, but the totality of what he does not yet have, of what he might have" [16].


References and Notes

  1. P. Morrison, J. Billingham and J. Wolfe, eds., "First Conclusion," in The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (New York: Dover, 1979) p. 8.
  2. Rollald N. Bracewell, "Manifestations of Advanced Civilizations", in J. Billingham, ed., Life in the Universe, 1st Ed. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981).
  3. Bracewell [2] p. 346.
  4. See Bracewell [2] p. 349.
  5. Sterling Bunnell, "The Evolution of Cetacean Illtelligence,'' in J. McIntyre, ed., Mind in the Waters (San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 1974) pp. 54-55.
  6. John C. Lilly, "Differences between the Communication of Man and of Dolphin," in Lilly On Dolphins (Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/ Doubleday, 1975) p. 227.
  7. John Sutphen, "Body State Communication among Cetaceans," in McIntyre [5] p. 141.
  8. See Lilly [6] p. 250.
  9. Charles Doria, "The Dolphin Rider," in McIntyre [5] p. 37.
  10. Travis Hudson and Kathleen Conti "The 'Aquatic Motif' in Chumash Rock Art,"Journal of Calilornia and Great Basin Anthropology 3, No. 2 (1981) p. 228.
  11. See Hudson alld Conti [10] p. 230.
  12. I made a $500 earnest-money payment for GAS payload #445 on 27 August 1982.
  13. Roger F. Malina, "Space Art: The Role of the Artist in Space Exploration" (Paris: International Astronautical Federation, 1989). This paper was presented at the 40th Congress of the International Astronautical Federation, 7-12 Octobcr 1989, Malaga, Spain.
  14. Joseph Needham, Science and Civilization in China (Cambridge, England - Cambridge University Press, 1959) p. 221.
  15. E.F. Mallove, M.M. Connors, R.L. Forward and Z. Paprotny, A Bibliography on the Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence (Washington, D.C.: NASA, 1978). NASA Reference Publication #1021 has 1,488 entries of further reading on this subject.
  16. Jean-Paul Sartre Situations I (Paris: Editions Callimard, 1947) p. 80.
  17. See Hudson and Conti [10] p. 228.

Published in Leonardo Volume 26 Nr. 4 1993 pp. 293-296.

Richard Clar may be reached at: Art Technologies, 23 rue aux Ours, 75003 Paris, France

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