France pioneering space cat exploration?

We have sent quite a few unusual objects, but also some living creatures into space. However, before successfully sending humans into orbit, training and testing of upstream technologies is required. As is often the case in science, when the results are relevant to human life, we first study the impact on animals. So, before Yuri Gagarin, the Soviet Union launched the interstellar Laika dog. On the US side, they are monkeys that have been installed on top of large rockets. But what about France? You may not know it, but France has become a pioneer in space exploration by sending the first cat into space. Her name is Félicette and we will tell you her story which unfortunately has nothing to envy other lab animals!

France, the third civilian space agency on the planet

By launching the rat Hector out of the atmosphere on February 22, 1961, France became the third country to successfully send an animal into space (after the Soviet Union and the United States). Furthermore, unlike the Soviet Union and the United States, the French space program only names a few of its four-legged astronauts. Indeed, it is not necessary for a scientist to have a crush on a fur ball. After all, it is still a subject of research. Like Hector, we have re-baptized the surviving animals to introduce them to the public.

Hector, the French space rat (Credit: CERMA)

The Center for Aviation Medical Research and Education (CERMA) is in charge of Hector’s space mission. However, he had bigger ambitions and wanted to send a larger mammal to get more convincing results. Their choices then fell on cats, because French scientists had access to many neurological observations of this species. They chose cats more specifically, the latter of which are actually more calm temperaments than their males.

French cat space exploration program

For this dangerous mission, CERMA acquired fourteen cats. After that, the staff of the French space program trained them for two months like real astronauts. Cats, for example, are placed in a centrifuge, they are bombarded with shrill noises, and are used to being confined to very small spaces. Scientists have also installed electrodes in the bodies of poor animals, especially in their brains. One cat did not tolerate this surgery well, which resulted in her being withdrawn from the program. She then becomes the team’s mascot before a researcher adopts her. She even has the right to a nickname: Scoubidou.

This is an opportunity that the C 341 registered cat did not enjoy. Indeed, it was she who was selected for the launch scheduled for October 18, 1963. On D-Day, CERMA personnel installed sensors on her body. His hind legs have plenty of room in goal to make it react through electrical impulses. At 8:09 a.m., after the countdown, the Véronique rocket flew over the Algerian desert, still under colonial control. With breakneck speed, the cat was ripped from the atmosphere. After that, the cockpit reached a maximum altitude of 152 km, when the animal evolved in a state of weightlessness for 5 minutes. The time to return to the blue planet has come. The landing went well and C 341 came out unscathed (physically at least). The flight lasted only a quarter of an hour.

French space cat Félicette . space cat
Cat C 341 (Credit: CERMA)

From C 341 to Felicette

During the mission, French scientists noticed a coma in which the cat was plunged when it was no longer subject to gravity. The lack of sensory cues that would explain this behavior has only been observed in space in a cat. Anyway, C 341’s mission was successful. To make France proud, the first space cat needed a name. fashion at the time, Famous cat Félix provided inspiration: C 341 thus became Félicette. His exploits were then made public in newspapers or documentaries, for example.

French space cat Félicette . space cat
Postcard in honor of Félicette (Credit: CERMA)

However, the cat quickly fell into oblivion. In light of the growing power of animal rights organizations, it is important to remain private, especially for the rest of their activities… Indeed, after three months of observation, scientists glorified Félicette discreetly. What do you want ? It was necessary to recover the electrode beyond its tip… To commemorate its sacrifice, postal services carried out stamping. Most of them, however, the cat was named Félix, no doubt because of a rumor: before the launch of Félicette, a cat escaped from the French space program. However, this story is fruitless, because CERMA only selects women and does not name them.

Unlike Laïka, with whom she shares her fate as a sacrificial laboratory guinea pig in the wake of the Cold War, Félicette has been waiting for recognition for years. However, at the end of 2020, a statue like him was erected in France. However, the initiative to celebrate the first space cat did not come from public authorities and even less from France. We owed funding from a Kickstarter campaign launched by a British, certainly more sensitive to animal causes than the French space program at the time.

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