The Cat Who Came Back From Space
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because even unwilling pioneers should be remembered.
By Ned Colin and Fiona Zublin
She doesn’t look very happy in her photos. Maybe it’s because she has an electrode implanted in her brain. But one likes to think that Félicette the cat was brave. A stray rescued from the streets of Paris, she was drafted into France’s space program … and is still, as far as is known, the only cat to ever go into the ionosphere.
And she came back. That’s important: So many animals sent into space in the service of science didn’t. Laika, the most famous Russian space dog, died inside Sputnik 2 after making history as the first animal in orbit, in 1957. But by the 1960s, some animals were coming back alive. After her historic flight, Félicette parachuted back to Earth and was recovered. Her return was short-lived, though, as scientists euthanized her a few months later so they could study the effect that space travel had had on her brain. But Félicette would forever be France’s sole space cat.
I was really surprised that [Félicette] isn’t the most famous cat in the world.
Matthew Guy, French space cat booster
In fact, the origin of the name Félicette isn’t clear. It may have been bestowed by journalists, as cats in France’s space program were intentionally nameless to discourage lab techs from becoming attached to animals who likely weren’t long for the world (or beyond). Nevertheless, on Oct. 16, 1963, nestled inside the nose cone of a Véronique AG147 rocket, the cat was shot into space from a base in the Sahara desert on a mission that lasted less than 15 minutes. France’s space program wasn’t as flashy as that of the U.S. or the Soviet Union, whose space race spurred the U.S. to put a man on the moon. The French had toyed with animals before, launching three rats into space in the year before Félicette’s mission in an attempt to study the effects of weightlessness on the body and brain.
Now, though, despite the internet’s obsession with cats, Félicette is nearly forgotten in France. According to legend, she wouldn’t have gone into space if the male cat, Félix, who was meant to go, hadn’t escaped. Other versions of the story say Félicette was the only one of the 14 feline candidates who hadn’t gained too much weight on a mission. Both explanations sound like things sexist jerks would make up to downplay the incredible achievements of a heroic female space cat, but it was the 1960s, so who can say? Either way, Félix, along with a picture that looks nothing like the real astrocat, was honored with commemorative stamps in the 1990s issued in some former French colonies.
One man’s not having it, though: Matthew Guy found out about Félicette from a promotional tea towel last year. “I was really surprised that this isn’t the most famous cat in the world,” he says. “What struck me most was the injustice of it all. There was a commemorative stamp that miscredited her mission to a male cat named Félix! Everyone knows Laika: They don’t get her confused with another dog, and they know it’s a Russian dog.”
Guy took matters into his own hands, raising close to $60,000 on Kickstarter last November to build a commemorative statue to Félicette in Paris. Now he’s location scouting, with the help of several others who were inspired by the project. Once they’ve found a proper place for the statue, construction and installation can commence. It turns out finding a location for a sculpture in the French capital isn’t easy, and until a spot is selected, it’s difficult to even start work on the object itself — no final design yet, since you asked, but it’ll be bronze and about 5 feet tall.
Though animals in space are rare now — you can send humans up there, after all — they played a key role in early space programs that eventually did put people into orbit. And one day, if Elon Musk gets his way, humans will routinely travel to Mars. Presumably they’ll want cats up there. What else would people look at pictures of on the internet?