A Brief History of Félicette, the First Cat in Space
By Emily Petsko
It's a classic zero to hero tale: A stray cat is plucked from the streets of Paris and trained to be an astronaut. This may sound like the plot of a children's book, but the story of Félicette—the first and only cat known to have survived a trip to space—is true.
The black and white cat's unlikely ascent to stardom began in the early '60s, when France's Centre d'Enseignement et de Recherches de Médecine Aéronautique (CERMA) chose more than a dozen cats to complete a rigorous space training program. The French had previously launched three rats into space and apparently decided to upgrade to larger mammals to study their bodily response to weightlessness.
The astrocats-in-training were subjected to compression chambers, small containers, and a centrifuge, all in an effort to find the feline that was the best fit for space. Félicette ultimately proved herself, and in October 1963, she was strapped into a container inside a Véronique rocket and launched from a base in the Sahara desert. She flew about 100 miles above Earth and spent several minutes in zero gravity, all while scientists monitored her progress via the electrodes implanted in her brain.
Then, almost as soon as she arrived, the capsule detached from the rocket and she parachuted safely to the ground, where she was retrieved by scientists. The trip lasted 15 minutes total.
Félicette's journey to outer space was preceded by Laika, the Russian street dog who became the first animal to orbit the Earth aboard Sputnik 2 in 1957. However, unlike Laika, who died in space, Félicette returned to Earth to live out the rest of her days. Those days, sadly, were numbered. Scientists euthanized her a few months later to study the impact of space travel on her brain.
Although Félicette's adventures were short, many people want to preserve her legacy. In the 1990s, commemorative postage stamps were issued in her memory in some former French colonies. (However, those stamps incorrectly identified her as a male cat named Félix.)
More recently, a Kickstarter campaign was launched last year to raise funds for the construction of a bronze statue of Félicette in Paris. Nearly $55,000 was raised, and according to an update posted in October 2018, the organizers are still looking for a suitable location for that statue.
"It's Félicette's contributions to spaceflight research that will one day allow us to take our cats to the Martian colonies and beyond," a video on the Kickstarter page states. "For that, she deserves her rightful recognition."