After Kiddo, the first airborne cat, here’s the story of another feline who made history: Félicette, the tuxedo cat.
Félicette is the first puss sent into space and to have returned alive as a passenger of the Véronique rocket launched on October 18th, 1963, from the Sahara. This French cat was retrieved after ten minutes of flight, including five without gravity.
Before the flight, Félicette went by the name C341, but after the flight, the media named her Felix, after a cartoon. The Center for Teaching and Research of Aeronautical Medicine changed it to a feminized version, Félicette.
A statue is erected in Paris in the feline’s memory. Similarly, the future astronomical observatory of the University of Toulouse will bear the name of Félicette.
The star wars
In 1963, the world was in the middle of a space conquest race involving animals. The Russians sent the dog Laïka into orbit; the Americans did the same with the chimpanzee Ham.
Likewise, the Brazilian army planned to launch a cat named Flamengo on a rocket in 1959, but the flight was canceled for ethical reasons concerning using a cat.
However, the French did not want to stay behind in this race; thus, they launched their rocket program in 1961.
In the beginning, French scientists used rats. Then, they wanted to use larger mammals and chose cats because they already had a large amount of neurological data on them.
In 1963, the Center for Teaching and Research in Aeronautical Medicine bought 14 cats from an animal dealer for the tests, the individual animals being selected according to their temperament. All of the cats were females for their calmer attitude.
The cats are not given names before launch to reduce scientists’ likelihood of becoming attached to them. Part of the cats’ space flight training is similar to human training. The animals train for about two months.
Félicette makes history
The launch team began preparation at the launch site on October 8th, 1963. On October 17th, six feline finalists were selected as candidates for flight, and a tuxedo cat with the designation C341 was selected for flight on launch day, with one backup.
Weighing in at 2.5 kg, C341 was the best of the six finalists due to her calm manner and appropriate weight. In addition, electrodes were attached to her body to monitor heart activity.
Félicette became the first cat launched into space on October 18th, 1963. Her space capsule was recovered 13 minutes after the rocket’s ignition.
Most of the mission’s data were of good quality, and Félicette survived the flight, she is famously the only cat to have survived space flight.
Félicette’s participation in the space race was certainly not voluntary. Still, it was an essential step for France, which had just created the world’s third largest civilian space agency.
Felicette gets her overdue commemoration
Animals having participated in the space race are usually celebrated. For instance, the chimpanzee Ham is buried in the International Space Hall of Fame in New Mexico, and the Soviet dog Laika has a bronze monument.
Still, more than 50 years after her mission, there was no monument for Félicette. So, in 2017, Matthew Serge Guy launched a crowdfunding campaign to erect a bronze statue of Félicette to commemorate her contribution to science.
Sculptor Gill Parker designed the statue. The preliminary design depicts a cat on top of the Earth, and a plaque with the names of major donors included. In April 2018, the project reached its funding target of £40,000.
The statue was unveiled on December 18th, 2019, as part of the 25th-anniversary celebration of the University’s Master of Space Studies program.
Furthermore, in 2021, the student astronomy club of the University of Toulouse III decided to name its future astronomical observatory after Félicette.