This manatee lives in a hollowed-out asteroid in space. Did you really expect that humans would be the only animals from Earth who would colonize the solar system? It's all part of a research project about how different space colonization might look than what you expect.
The project was created by the Working Group on Adaptive Systems. They call it the "Nonhuman Autonomous Space Agency," and it's a whimsical futurist speculation built on top of a serious thought experiment. Its roots are in environmental science fiction like the movie Silent Running, about a spaceship that holds Earth's last remaining ecosystems; and Kim Stanley Robinson's recent novel 2312, where activists recreate Earth's destroyed ecosystems inside hollowed-out asteroids. But it also shares territory with David Brin's Uplift saga and Cordwainer Smith's Underpeople stories, about what happens when our tech allows us to give animals human-like intelligence.
Writes the group on their website:
In recent decades, space exploration has been the heroic imperative of humankind, but this was not always the case. The first Earthlings in space were dogs, monkeys, and rabbits. Offering the opportunity to explore space back to nonhumans reveals new opportunities, risks, and rewards. Would an animal already adapted for life in a weightless medium not be better suited for free fall? What would an intelligent, curious, nonhuman mammal with a twitter account want to see and do in high Earth orbit and beyond?
The animals in this future are both uplifted and part of experimental ecosystems forged in space. It's a Utopian vision in some ways, because it imagines a future where the people of Earth value our environment so much that we try to recreate it in space. But of course, we're recreating it in a profoundly changed way, with manatees who use iPads and smart chickens.
The group describes "the Lazy River," a their speculative space habitat for manatees and chickens:
The Lazy River is a habitat for chickens and manatees, modeled on south Florida. It has a sevenfold symmetry, formed from the deconstruction of a source rock into its component materials, then extruded with a 3D printer and woven together, with a large river around the middle, and windows fore and aft that receive reflected sunlight.
The design challenge for habitats like the Lazy River is to create as many opportunities as possible for interaction between the animals and the robot caretakers that manage the environment.
The Lazy River rotates to provide artificial gravity forces equivalent to those found on the surface of Mars, about 1/3 the strength of Earth's gravity. This allows chickens to take off and fly, and manatees to crawl up to the central axis, where they too are weightless. Special goggles help prevent the manatees eyes from drying out.
The river running around the deepest part of the hollow asteroid is home to a colony of Florida manatees. In intelligence tests, manatees have performed at least as well as dolphins, in both pattern recognition, and task performance, if more slowly. Unlike most other intelligent aquatic mammals, the manatee's flippers are visible in their field of vision, allowing for fine grained flipper-eye coordination. There is no reason why a manatee would not be able to operate a touchscreen device, in theory.
Ultimately the Nonhuman Autonomous Space Agency reminds us that the future doesn't just belong to humans. When we imagine tomorrow, we have to think about the future of our ecosystems and our fellow animals. Going into space won't mean leaving Earth behind and living in the streamlined hallways of the USS Enterprise. It may involve getting muddy, wet and covered in chicken poop, as we create new environments that have all the dirtiness of the old ones — and all the technological insight we've gained in the years since we lived in a state of nature.
See more incredible pictures, and read more about this thought experiment, at the Nonhuman Autonomous Space Agency site.