Félicette didn’t seem like a distinctive space traveler. She weighed just five and a half pounds. She’d spent most of her life on the thoroughfares of Paris. And Félicette was a cat, who was one of 14 coached by French scientists for space flight.
In 1963, she went where no cat had gone before. Selected for her calm conduct and low weight, Félicette was secured in a rocket in October of that year. She remained in space for 15 minutes on a speedy flight to the stars before coming back to the earth safely.
Her legacy, however, was largely forgotten. While other animals in space like Laika the dog and Ham the chimp were acclaimed, Félicette developed into an appendix of history.
France’s sending of cats to Outer Space
By the 1960s, the “Space Race” had started to heat up. But though the Soviet Union and the United States were making several thrilling progressions, the French felt that their own space program was lacking.
They had sent mice up in rockets. But that wasn’t as remarkable as the Soviet dog Laika, who went to space in 1957, or the American chimpanzee Ham who followed her up in 1961.
What’s more, mice didn’t offer researchers many understandings. And the whole intention of transporting fauna to space was to comprehend how space trips could influence human functioning. So French experts turned their attention to another animal, cats.
According to a former veterinarian and the head of exobiology at France’s National Center for Space Studies, the cat was one of the creatures extensively used for studies of neurophysiology at the time.
In other words, it was sensible to use an animal that researchers already comprehended well. So, in quest of their new goal, experts at the Centre d’Enseignement et de Recherches de Médecine Aéronautique (CERMA) obtained 14 female cats, and began to put them through space traveler training.
They referred to one of the cats as “C 341.” Later, the calm feline would be known as Félicette.
Félicette’s Journey to Outer Space
Félicette and the other 13 cats went through a strenuous screening process to see how they’d react to space flight. With electrodes in their brains, they bore incarceration, loud rocket noises, and even stomach-churning centrifuge gatherings for many months.
Of all the cats, Félicette emerged as one of six contenders to go to space. Researchers picked her because she’d sustained her weight, while the other cats in the program had gained weight and because she had a calm manner.
According to the CERMA scientists, Félicette was the right cat for the job. She would have been disqualified from the program if she had shown any panic reaction as it would have made her brain signals impossible to read.
In the end, Félicette was selected for the final mission. She was loaded into a Véronique AG1 rocket on Oct. 18, 1963, in Hammaguir, Algeria, and launched into space at 8:09 AM sharp.
The rocket ascended very high, up to nearly 157 km. After 15 minutes of rising through the stars, she came back to the earth a French hero.
The media affectionately nicknamed the “astrocat” Félix, after the popular cartoon. Because Félicette was actually female, they later corrected her name to the feminine form.
But her days, sadly, were numbered.
The Legacy of The First Cat in Space
Félicette’s moment of glory didn’t last long. Soon after she came back to the earth, scientists euthanized her so they could study her brain.
From then on, Félicette’s remarkable legacy began to diminish. But why Félicette was forgotten while animals like Ham the chimp and Laika the dog are remembered and celebrated was because of how history was made in the space race between the US and the Soviet Union of launching humans into space and then eventually to the moon according to Robert Pearlman, space historian and editor of the space history site collectSPACE.
Because the French never launched humans into space and later joined with the European Space Agency, their early actions reduced next to the Russian and American ones. As such, Félicette’s story was slowly overlooked.
Even the French eventually forgot about her. When a series of stamps appeared honoring Félicette’s space flight, they accidentally depicted her as a male cat named Félix, just like the media had originally.
But that started to transform in 2017 when a London-based man named Matthew Serge Guy started a kickstarter campaign to get a bronze memorial in the “Astrocat’s” honor. He wrote on the page that very few people were aware that a cat had gone to space even though other animals like Laika the dog and Ham the chimpanzee were well-known within popular culture and had lasting memorials. Felicette didn’t have one and it was time to give her a memorial. His campaign was successful and raised more than $57,000 to create a statue for Felicette, which was installed at the International Space University in Strasbourg, France.
Later, the Université Toulouse III declared that they would name their forthcoming observatory after Félicette. The observatory is set to open in 2023 and has “Astrocat” as its logo.
As such, Félicette is finally getting the credit she merits. Her role in space travel was small and it was certainly involuntary, but it was an involvement nonetheless.
Today’s astronauts and space travelers follow in her pawprints.