Félicette the Space Cat
During the US/Soviet space races of the 50s and 60s, scientists still knew very little about space travel, and they sent animals out into space before sending out humans to see how gravity would impact them. The first of these animals ever launched into orbit was Laika in 1957. A stray dog picked up off the streets of Moscow, Soviet scientists sent her out into an unretrievable rocket, fully expecting her to die in the voyage, which she did. It’s a tragic tale that raises questions about the ethics of animal testing, that remains a controversial topic 60 years since it happened. But this isn’t a story about Laika or space dogs, this is rather the story of the first cat in space.
By late 1963, the Space Race was in full swing, with the Americans the Russians vying with each other. While it was nearly six years before Neil Armstrong would land on the moon, by this point both countries had successfully sent out dogs, monkeys and humans into orbit. But nobody sent out cats. France, eager to stake their own claim in the space race, recognized a golden opportunity. They had scheduled to send out a cat, Félix, but then he went missing the day of the launch. So they quickly scrambled for a replacement, a Parisian stray that they named her “Félicette”. Six days after Félix went missing, Félicette shot 130 miles above Earth in a rocket, returning to ground after 15 minutes.
After her landing, the cat was already a decorated heroine. French scientists at the Education Center of Aviation and Medical Research (CERMA) studied her brain waves to see if she had changed since her voyage, and spoke of the “valuable contribution” she made to space research. Ultimately, France was a pretty minor player in the space race of the time; it was more hailed as a symbolic showdown between the US and the Soviets over who could control the heavens. Although the French do have a formidable space program, they never pursued sending humans into space on their own rockets, making their contributions relatively minimal. Typically, French astronauts launched on Russian or American rockets. Nonetheless, the animals sent into space, including Félicette, provided valuable insight that has been vital to scientists better understanding space travel.