In 1963, the United States and the Soviet Union were locked in a space race, as each nation attempted to dominate the region above Earth. Fueled by the Cold War, and Kennedy’s famous moon speech from 1962, both superpowers put their best minds toward a drive to place humans on the Moon. That race was, of course, won by the United States when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked across the lunar surface in July 1969. Meanwhile, in France, the world’s third civilian space program set their eyes on another space traveler – a cat.
Félicette was a stray tuxedo cat, living on the streets of Paris (or so the most popular story of her goes) when she was adopted by the French government to join a team of 14 cats being trained for a journey into space. These would-be feline astronauts were subjected to surgery to implant electrodes in their brains, and testing which included compression chambers and centrifuges. Félicette was chosen for the mission, at least in part, due to her calm disposition.
“Her participation in the space race was certainly not voluntary, but it was a huge milestone for France, which had just established the world’s third civilian space agency (after the U.S. and the Soviet Union). Félicette’s mission helped bring France into the space race,” Hanneke Weitering wrote in an article for Space.com.
Launched on a suborbital flight aboard a Veronique AGI sounding rocket on October 18, 1963, Félicette experienced acceleration forces up to 9.5 times the pull of gravity on Earth. She reached an altitude of 157 kilometers (over 97 miles) above the Earth, where the intrepid traveler experienced five minutes of weightlessness. To date, she remains the only cat to have experienced a gravity-free environment. Less than 15 minutes later, she parachuted safely back to Earth.
Félicette was euthanized three months after her historic flight, so that researchers could examine her brain.
“Without animal testing in the early days of the human space program, the Soviet and American programs could have suffered great losses of human life. These animals performed a service to their respective countries that no human could or would have performed. They gave their lives and/or their service in the name of technological advancement, paving the way for humanity’s many forays into space,” NASA explained on a webpage commemorating the contributions of animals to the space programs of the world.
Félicette has been memorialized on postage stamps around the world, although many of these stamps incorrectly credited her as a male cat named Felix. A popular story was that Felix was supposed to be the first cat in space, but escaped the day before launch. However, Felix never existed, and the story may be an example of sexism finding its way into the world of cats.
In 2017, a crowdfunding campaign began to construct a memorial in Paris in her honor. That drive met its goal, gathering over 43.000 Euros (nearly $50,000) in donations. The statue, to be constructed by Gill Parker, will feature a likeness of Félicette on top of a rocket.
One of the reasons that Félicette may not be as well-known as Laika, the first dog in space, or Ham the chimpanzee may be due to the electrodes attached to her head. These made pictures of Félicette disturbing to some people, reducing the number of newspapers willing to carry her story at the time she was launched.
A second feline was launched toward space on the 24th of October in 1963, but that rocket failed on takeoff, leading to the loss of its furry crew.
NASA and other space agencies no longer send animals into space, in part because it is considered cruel, and partly because new technologies make using animals to test the effects of space unnecessary. However, as humans begin to populate the solar system – from the lunar outpost China intends to build on the Moon with a 3D printer to the million people Elon Musk intends to put on Mars – we will want to bring our animal companions with us. As we populate other worlds, together with our feline companions, let’s always remember Félicette – the cat who got there first.