Bizarre History of Cats in Space
November 16, 2022
Thousands of animals have been launched into orbit since the dawn of the space age. But to what extent have cats been involved in such endeavors?
In the days before the first astronauts had ventured into space, animals were used by scientists to see whether it was possible for life to survive the effects of spaceflight.
Animals have also been used to investigate various biological processes and the effects of microgravity on these living organisms.
Several nations, including the U.S. and Soviet Union, sent animals into space. A wide variety of creatures have been launched into space—many in ethically dubious experiments—including dogs, rodents, non-human primates, fish, frogs, spiders and insects.
But have cats ever ventured into space?
What was the first cat in space?
To date, only one cat has ever made it into space—a feline dubbed Félicette who was launched into orbit in 1963 by the French space program.
Félicette—reportedly a stray picked up on the streets of Paris according to some accounts—was one of 14 cats selected by the Centre d’Enseignement et de Recherches de Médecine Aéronautique (CERMA) for “training” to go into space.
This training involved some testing in centrifuges and spending long periods of time in restraining garments. The cats also had implants and permanent electrodes placed on them, Keith Crisman, a professor in the Department of Space Studies at the University of North Dakota, told Newsweek.
“This was France’s entry into the space race, making them the third nation to launch a civilian space agency.”
Why would you send cats to space?
The primary goal for using the cats at the time was that no one really knew the effect of microgravity on complex organisms like humans.
“So, if the cats survived, it was assumed that humans could as well,” Crisman said. “These cats were placed in several—intense, I might add—training situations, which included compression garments to prevent movement and even a high-g centrifuge. Further, there were plenty of invasive tests as well.”
French scientists eventually narrowed down the group of 14 cats to six based on their training behavior and overall demeanor. Félicette was eventually chosen due to her calmness and weight. Initially she was unnamed, simply designated with the tag C341. A backup cat, also unnamed, was also chosen.
On October 18, 1963 Félicette was launched atop a Véronique AG1 rocket from a site in Algeria within the Sahara Desert. During her journey, which lasted less than 15 minutes, the cat reached an altitude of nearly 100 miles, briefly experiencing weightlessness and forces of up to 9.5 gs.
The cat managed to survive the trip after the capsule carrying her successfully detached from the rocket, parachuting safely back to the ground.
Ron Doel, an associate professor of history at Florida State University, told Newsweek the general idea behind sending animals into space in the mid-20th century was to shed light on how humans could adapt to this unique environment.
“You put a creature where there’s a general understanding of the physiology and typical behaviors in space and you look for the unknowns,” Doel said.
“One of the early experiments was—could fish still figure out how to swim in a straight line in the absence of gravity? That was both a fundamental research question, but also [scientists wanted to see] how well fish or other animals could orient in a space environment.”
Researchers were also concerned about things like radiation exposure in low-Earth orbit and what effect it would have.
What did scientists learn from cats in space?
During the training of the French cats, electrodes were placed into their brains to allow for monitoring of neurologic activity. This limited their “training” to only a few months to avoid issues with the electrodes.
“Speaking of these electrodes, some were set to monitor neurologic activity through placement in various locations on the skull and in the front sinuses, some were placed on either back leg to monitor cardiac output, and two were placed on her front legs that could be used to stimulate electrical impulses for a response,” Crisman said.
Félicette’s breathing was monitored by a microphone on the chest and in the nosecone of the rocket. She ultimately spent around five minutes in microgravity but also experienced 9.5 gs on launch and 7 gs on descent.
“To put that in comparison, Shuttle astronauts experienced around 3 gs and the SpaceX Dragon experiences approximately 4 gs, similar to Apollo astronauts on the Saturn V,” Crisman said.
The data that researchers obtained indicated that the cat experienced an increased heart and respiration rate on ascent and descent but this returned to a nominal rate while in microgravity.
Despite surviving her extraordinary journey, Félicette was euthanized two months later—after she was named—so that scientists could conduct further studies on her brain.
How many cats have been in space?
While Félicette is the only cat so far that has made it into space, the French did also attempt to launch another one of the feline cadets.
On October 24, 1963, a second launch was attempted with a cat onboard but the rocket experienced a mechanical failure, shooting off at an extreme angle, with the animal perishing in the incident.
“The catstronaut did not reach space and due to the damage and length of time to reach her, succumbed to her injuries in the badly damaged nosecone of the rocket,” Crisman said.
All of the remaining cats bar one were euthanized at the end of the program. The only one that survived escaped death because it had a reaction to the electrodes and they were removed. She was subsequently kept as a mascot for the team.
In the 1940s, some cats were used by the U.S. Air Force as part of spaceflight research efforts. But these felines never made it into space. They were used in microgravity movement tests, which involved placing the cats on parabolic aircraft flights and releasing them. Scientists were able to observe how they moved in this simulation of microgravity.
“At the time we had no idea if a human could even move in microgravity—there was also fear that their eyes could ‘fall out.’ So, the answer was to let cats loose on the parabolic flight,” Crisman said.
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Félicette’s story has largely been overshadowed by those of other animals such as Laika—a Soviet space dog who was the first animal to orbit the Earth in 1957.
“Honestly I think a lot of that is due to the fact that the focus was primarily on the U.S. and U.S.S.R.,” Crisman said. “Fortunately, Félicette does finally have a memorial statue of her looking up to the sky.”
Following a successful Kickstarter campaign, a bronze statue of the cat was unveiled in 2019 at the International Space University in Strasbourg, France.
Update 11/17/22, 06:53 a.m. ET: This article was updated to include additional comments from Ron Doel.