The Story of Félicette: How the World Almost Forgot About the First Cat in Space
When we talk about animals in space, the first names that usually come to mind are Belka and Strelka, the brave dogs who traveled beyond our planet. But there’s another remarkable space traveler who deserves our attention: Félicette, a small black-and-white cat who made history in October 1963. Félicette remains largely unknown in the annals of space exploration despite her incredible journey.
Cats in space: idea origin
The idea of sending a cat into space came from the scientists at the French Center for Education and Research in Aviation Medicine (CERMA) in the early 1960s. They were curious about how a cat’s sensitive vestibular apparatus, which helps it maintain its balance on the Earth, would react in the weightlessness of space.
In 1963, CERMA selected 14 potential cat astronauts, some of whom were taken from the streets of Paris. All the cats were female due to their calmer demeanor. They underwent further selection and two months of special “astronaut training” to prepare for their flight.
Scientists decided to send a cat on a suborbital flight. The carrier rocket had to exceed an altitude of 100 km (the “space boundary”), then rise a little higher where the capsule with the cat inside would separate from the rocket, spend several minutes in weightlessness, and return to the Earth. During the whole journey, a cat had to be secured in a special container in a lying position.
The whole flight would take about 15 minutes, but for cats, it is difficult to sit still for even that short a time. Therefore, preference was given to the quietest and most pliable cats.
Cats were placed in containers for increasing periods of time, spun in centrifuges to simulate the forces of launch and re-entry, and tested for calm and adaptability. They were also implanted with electrodes to monitor their brain activity.
One particular black and white cat stood out from the rest. At the time, she was known only as C341; to avoid emotional attachment to the test subjects, the scientists didn’t give the cats names, just numbers. Weighing 2.5 kg (5.5 lbs), C341 was chosen as the best because of her calm demeanor and appropriate weight.
Félicette’s launch day
On October 18, 1963, Félicette made its historic journey as part of the French space program. A rocket, Véronique AG1, carried the cat in a capsule to an altitude of 157 kilometers and officially entered space.
Félicette’s time in space was limited to around five minutes. And unlike space tourists, she had no view of the Earth from her capsule.
During the flight, the little cat experienced up to 9.5 g forces — nearly twice what the Apollo astronauts experienced during their launch to the Moon! However, in-flight data confirmed that Félicette remained perfectly calm. Indeed, she was the right choice for the job — any kind of panic reaction on her part would have made the brain signals impossible to interpret.
During the landing, Félicette experienced “only” 7 g until her capsule’s parachutes opened. Thirteen minutes after launch, the capsule descended safely to Earth and landed upside-down — a remarkable feat for a cat.
It took about 15 minutes for scientists to locate and retrieve Félicette after her landing. Amazingly, she emerged from her capsule unharmed, a testament to the success of her mission.
Flight’s aftermath: the fate of the first cat in space
After C341 returned safely to the Earth, the flight data was released to the media. They nicknamed the cat Felix, after the cartoon series Félix the Cat, mistaking C341 for a male cat. CERMA changed it to the female version, Félicette, and adopted the name as official.
While Félicette’s launch was a scientific success, her fate was unfortunate. Researchers conducted various studies on her for about two months after her return. However, the electrodes implanted into her brain before the flight had to be removed so scientists could get all the necessary information about the cat’s vestibular apparatus and brain. To do this, they euthanized Félicette.
Scientists later admitted that they had learned nothing useful from the autopsy. No more cats went into the Earth’s orbit, and Félicette remained the first and only cat to have been in space.
Why was Félicette forgotten?
Despite her contributions to science, Félicette received far less recognition than the other animal astronauts. Ham the chimpanzee, for example, was honored with a burial at the International Space Hall of Fame, while Laika the dog had monuments built in her memory. Félicette, on the other hand, received limited commemoration, with postage stamps even mislabeling her as a male cat named Felix.
One reason for Félicette’s obscurity is that early space history often focused on the rivalry between the United States and the USSR, leaving France and its space program in the background.
Another reason may be Félicette’s appearance — photos of her with electrodes implanted in her skull didn’t sit well with the newly growing animal rights movement.
Félicette’s memorial statue
However, Félicette’s story took a turn in 2017 when enthusiast Matthew Serge Guy launched a Kickstarter campaign in her honor. More than 1,100 people donated, and the campaign gathered $57,000 to honor the memory of Félicette. The money was spent on a 1.5-meter (5 ft) bronze statue of Félicette, designed by sculptor Gill Parker.
The statue depicts Félicette perched on the Earth, looking up to the skies she once traveled through. It was unveiled on December 18, 2019, nearly six decades after her journey, on the campus of the International Space University in Strasbourg.
Remembering Félicette, the first cat in space
The next time you gaze at the night sky, remember Félicette, the brave cat who defied gravity and ventured into the unknown! Let the story remind us of the remarkable contributions animals have made to our exploration of space.