Cat in space: France pioneering feline space exploration?

Cat in space: France pioneering feline space exploration?


We sent a lot of sometimes unusual objects, but also some living beings into space. Before successfully placing a human in orbit, however, it was necessary to train and test the technologies upstream. As often happens with science, when the result involves the life of a man, the impact on animals is studied first. So, before Yuri Gagarin, the USSR launched the Laika bitch among the stars. On the side of the United States, these are monkeys that have been installed on top of large rockets. But what about the Hexagon? You may not know it, but France has become the pioneer in feline space exploration by sending the first cat into space. Her name was Félicette and we tell you her story which unfortunately has nothing to envy to other laboratory animals!

France, the third largest civilian space agency on the planet

By launching the Hector rat out of the atmosphere on February 22, 1961, France became the third nation to successfully send an animal into space (after the USSR and the USA). By the way, unlike the Soviets and Americans, the French space program named only some of its four-legged astronauts. Indeed, it was not necessary for a scientist to take affection for a hairball. After all, she remained, first of all, a subject of study. Like Hector, we baptized animals that managed to come back alive to present them to the public.

The Center for Aeronautical Medicine Education and Research (CERMA) was in charge of Hector’s space mission. However, he had greater ambitions and wanted to send a larger mammal in order to obtain more convincing results. Their choice then fell on cats, because French scientists had access to numerous neurological observations on this species. In particular, they opted for pussies, the latter being indeed of a calmer temperament than their male counterparts.

The French feline space exploration program

For this perilous mission, CERMA acquired fourteen pussies. Then the staff of the French space program trained them for two months as real astronauts. The felines, for example, were placed in a centrifuge, found themselves bombarded with deafening noises and were accustomed to being confined to very small spaces. The scientists also installed electrodes in the bodies of the poor animals, especially in their brains. A cat also put up with this surgery poorly, which led to her being removed from the program. She then became the team’s mascot before a researcher adopted her. She even got the right to a little name: Scoubidou.

This is a chance that the cat registered C 341 did not enjoy. Indeed, it was she who was chosen for the planned launch on October 18, 1963. On D-Day, CERMA staff installed sensors on her body. Her hind legs have hosted several in an attempt to make her react through electrical impulses. At 8:09, at the end of the countdown, the Véronique rocket rose above the Algerian desert, still under colonial control. At a crazy speed, the pussy is torn out of the atmosphere. The cabin then reached the maximum altitude of 152 kilometers, at which time the animal evolved in zero gravity for five minutes. Then came the time to descend back to the blue planet. The landing went well and C 341 emerged unscathed (at least physically). The flight will have lasted in all only a quarter of an hour.

From C 341 to Félicette

During the mission, the French scientists noticed the comatose state in which the cat was plunged when it was no longer subjected to gravity. The lack of sensory cues would explain this behavior observed in space only in a feline. Anyway, the mission of C 341 was successful. In order to make France proud, the first space cat needed a name. Fashionable at the time, the famous Felix cat provided the inspiration: C 341 thus became Félicette. His feat is then publicized in newspapers or documentaries for example.

However, the pussy quickly fell into oblivion. In the context of the rise of animal protection organizations, it was becoming important to remain discreet, especially for the rest of the operations … Indeed, after three months of observations, scientists euthanized Félicette discreetly. What is it that you want? It was necessary to recover the electrode that protruded from his head … To celebrate his sacrifice, postal services made stamps. On most, however, the cat was named Felix, probably because of a rumor: before the launch of Félicette, a matou escaped from the French space program. Nevertheless, this story does not stick, because the CERMA selected only females and did not give them a name.

Unlike Laika, with whom she shares her destiny as a laboratory guinea pig sacrificed in the context of the Cold War, Félicette has waited for many years for recognition. At the end of 2020, a statue in his effigy was finally erected in France. The initiative to celebrate the first space cat, however, did not come from the public authorities and even less from France. We owe its funding to a Kickstarter campaign launched by an Englishman, undoubtedly more sensitive to the animal cause than the French space program at the time.