Last year, I visited the Cosmonautics Museum in Moscow, and later on, the Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg. While the former ignored space cats completely, my trip to St Petersburg was much more fruitful. A whole panel on the wall was dedicated to the wayward kitties sacrificed in the space programme. Before this visit, I knew nothing of these cosmic cats, and their attempts at space exploration. I couldn’t read what the board in Cyrillic characters read, but I scribbled down the name ‘Félicette’. The story of the space cats, I soon found out, was a rather sad one.
We’ve all heard of space dogs, right? Laika met an untimely end, although the residents of Soviet Union didn’t find out how gruesome it was for many years. Belka and Strelka had happier endings. It seems that space dogs had quite a day in the sun. In fact, Laika wasn’t even the first dog to attempt space flight. Dezik and Tsygan, two other Moscow strays, had reached the cusp of outer space several years earlier. More than 20 others followed suit. The dogs had to be little, female and have bright coats – so they would show up on cameras implanted in the capsules.
But soon animal lovers chimed in on poor Laika’s behalf. She was “the shaggiest, lonesomest, saddest dog in all history,” the Times’s editorial board lamented; to subject her to such an experiment was “monstrous” and “horrible.” An employee of an animal shelter noted Laika’s inability to consent to the flight, calling it “morally, spiritually, and ethically wrong.1”
With the Soviets eventually admitting that Laika would eat poisoned food a week into her flight, tempers frayed on the ethics of using animals for space travel. After Laika was successfully launched – and sadly burnt to a crisp in her capsule – the argument continued as various monkeys were launched on their own space adventures.
What about cats, though? Didn’t it seem odd that man’s other, more aloof best friend was left out entirely?
Well, they weren’t. We just didn’t hear much about it.
In the 1960s, the French launched their own space programme. In true French fashion, they wanted to add a little bit of pizazz to their space missions. No one was sending up cats. They decided they would give it a go.
To be fair, cats didn’t visit space as many times as dogs. There certainly wasn’t a lot of press about the cats, who were overshadowed by their canine cousins. However, there is one noteworthy claim amongst the French cat missions – the first cat to be successfully launched into space, and to make her way back.
Félicette, like all of the other space cats, was a stray. Plucked from the streets of Paris, she was one of 14 cats selected by the French space program to undergo spaceflight training. This training was pretty intense. The cats were spun on centrifuges and taught to deal with confinement for long periods of time. They were also subjected to loud noises. If you think of how much most cats freak out when the vacuum cleaner switches on, you can imagine how distressing this would have been.
While the Mercury 7 and the first Cosmonauts had some idea of what they were getting themselves into, the cats and dogs of the space programme must have been bewildered. ECG nodules were placed on the heads of the animal-nauts to monitor their brain activity. If you are interested in seeing some of what the cats were put through, there is a longer video available here. In my opinion, it’s pretty grim.
On the 18th of October, 1963, Félicette became the first (and only) feline to ever travel to the edge of space. Another cat, Felix, had apparently been slated to launch, but ran away on the day (unsurprisingly!). It’s also claimed that Félicette was the only one of the 14 feline cats in the programme who was slim enough to fit in the capsule, after most of them grew rather portly. No one is quite sure how she got her name, as cats in the programme weren’t supposed to be named individually – lest the scientists working with them get too attached.
Félicette launched atop a Véronique AG1 rocket and flew almost 157 kilometers above the Earth, briefly experiencing weightlessness. Her tiny body was subjected to up to 9.5 g’s of force. Fifteen minutes later, she safely returned to Earth, via parachute, in her little space capsule — alive. The French were actually the third country to establish a space agency, and her successful voyage brought France into the space race.
Another cat followed on October 24, but sadly died before its capsule could be recovered two days later. This put an end to the French space cat programme. And the saddest part of little Félicette’s story? She lived for only a few months after the mission. While the Soviets realised the PR gold that would result from breeding their space dogs, the French seemed to miss that memo. She was put down so the impact of space travel on her brain could be studied.
Long after her successful mission, some French colonies issued stamps of the first feline in space. To add insult to injury, it featured the aforementioned Felix, who looked nothing like the real space pioneer. Ouch. Though she made headlines in a few countries, Félicette’s astro journey was overshadowed by other space race events of the 1960s. She was nothing but a passing mention.
The Soviet Union made the space-pups stars. They appeared on every product imaginable, and you can still buy space dog mugs at the Cosmonaut Museum in Moscow. I may just own one. But the world forgot about it space kitties. I believe – and optimistically hope – that the ‘leftover’ cats were adopted out to the families of the scientists involved.
However, the public’s desire to memorialize the first space cat is growing. In 2017, a Kickstarter campaign successfully raised over 40,000 pounds to erect a memorial to Félicette – although it seems it is yet to eventuate. A class in North Canada made prototype memorial statues from clay. You can even buy beautifully designed Félicette throw pillows and pins.
So, next time you are looking up at the night sky, or hear about the latest Space X development, don’t forget the feline explorers that helped get us where we are today. I’m sure Félicette is up there, batting around the stars as we speak.
If you are interested in the history of cats and other animals in the space race, I recommend the following sites and books.
- Independent Article, 2014 – Animal astronauts: Geckos, chimps and dogs pay a high price for mankind’s urge to explore space
- Ozy Article, 2018 – The Cat Who Came Back from Space
- Animals in Space: From Research Rockets to the Space Shuttle by Colin Burgess and Chris Dubbs, Springer Science & Business Media, 2007
- Soviet Space Dogs by