When you think of space travel, a few names might come to mind, like those of human astronauts, such as Buzz Aldrin. You might even think of animals who have gone to space, such as Ham, the chimpanzee, or Laika, the dog. But do you know about Félicette, the first cat to be sent to space?
If not, you aren’t alone. Most people haven’t heard of Félicette the cat, who was the first cat in space, as her story has been mostly overlooked throughout the years (or credited to a cat named Felix, who never existed in the first place). But in 1963, Félicette the cat went on a brief journey to space after being launched on a rocket by the French version of NASA, the Centre National d’études Spatiales (CNES).
Here’s Félicette’s story!
Who Is Félicette the Cat?
Where exactly Félicette the cat came from is unclear. Some stories have her being discovered on the Parisian streets by the French space program, while others claim she was purchased from a cat dealer. Wherever Félicette was originally from, she ended up being one of a handful of cats trained for a flight to space. Of the 14 felines who underwent training for spaceflight, Félicette was the only one chosen to actually launch into space, supposedly because of how calm and docile she was (though some say it’s because she was the only kitty trained who met the weight requirements).
This kitty wasn’t known originally as Félicette, either. Initially, she was known only as C341 (a name given to help people avoid emotional attachments). The name Félicette was given to this fantastic feline after her triumphant journey to space!
Why Did They Send a Cat to Space?
1963 was still the early days of the space race and research into spaceflight. Scientists the world round were trying to understand how things like the lack of gravity and centrifugal forces would affect a living being while in space. So, scientists used animals for testing to see if living beings even had the ability to survive in space. Félicette was just one of these animals.
To study this with Félicette, scientists carefully monitored her breathing and heart rate while she was on her journey to space via electrodes implanted into her body. By learning how her body reacted to the differences between being weightless in space versus grounded on Earth, scientists could further understand how a human might survive in space.
Félicette’s Journey to Space
On October 18, 1963, Félicette was launched into space via a Véronique AG1 rocket sent off from a base in Algeria. Félicette’s journey only lasted around 15 minutes, but during that time, she flew almost 100 miles over the Earth and achieved weightlessness for about 5 minutes. The Véronique AG1 reached six times the speed of sound, exposing Félicette to 9.5 g-force. After all that, Félicette was safely parachuted back to Earth, where she was met by a recovery team. Pretty impressive for a kitty!
Of course, while Félicette was experiencing all this, scientists were monitoring all her vital signs to discover how her body and brain held up in space. After her return from space, Félicette spent another couple of months being studied by the space program’s lab. Unfortunately, they ultimately decided to euthanize Félicette so they could study the electrodes that had been implanted in her brain.
After all that, you’d think more people would know about the first cat to go to space, but sadly, Félicette’s story has been overshadowed by the stories of other animals in space. Even worse, her story has often been attributed to a cat named Felix—who never actually existed!
Remembering Félicette Today
Though Félicette’s story and contribution to science have long been overlooked, in recent years, this phenomenal feline has had efforts made to commemorate her journey and contributions. In particular, in 2017, Matthew Serge Guy created a Kickstarter to create a Félicette statute. The Kickstarter summary pointed out that many animals who have been to space or made lasting contributions to science, like Laika, the dog, have been memorialized as statues and in other ways, so why shouldn’t Félicette get a statue of her own?
The Kickstarter campaign was successful, and as of 2019, the Félicette statue has been on display at the International Space University in Strasbourg! The statue was created by Gill Parker, a renowned animal sculptor, and features Félicette perched atop the Earth.
And now you know the story of Félicette, the first cat in space! Animals have made many contributions to science, so they should be remembered for what they’ve helped humanity accomplish. Now that Félicette has her own memorial statue, more people will be aware of this fantastic kitty and her contributions to space research!
Featured Image Credit: Illustration by Deborah Lucke.