Felicette – The Space Cat

 

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Last week actor William Shatner, famous for playing Captain Kirk in Star Trek, flew into space onboard a Blue Origin capsule, making headlines all around the world.

But Monday October 18th will be the 58th anniversary of a space mission not many people even know about – the flight of the first, and so far only, cat to go into space.

Her name was Felicette.

 

When I was writing and researching “A Cat’s Guide to The Night Sky” I learned about Felicette – the first (and so far only) cat to go into space. I was quite surprised and embarrassed that I hadn’t known much about her previously, and I decided to try to make her story known to more people. So, for the past few years I have been talking about her to lots of people and writing about her on social media and in magazines. The July issue of the popular UK magazine “All About Space” contained a 4-page feature written by me about Felicette (shown here being totally ignored by my own cat, Jess..!)…

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I have written a book about Felicette, which hasn’t been taken by a publisher yet but I’ll keep trying!  I think Felicette is one of the forgotten heroines of the Space Age, and I’m on a mission to make her as well known as Laika and the other more famous “animal astronauts” people know about.

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The story behind “FELICETTE – The Space Cat”

Years before humans dared to leave Earth, others were sent into the unknown in their place. Animals, not people, were the first to reach, and break through, that final frontier.

Everyone interested in space knows the story of gentle Laika, the first dog to travel into – and tragically die in – orbit (but not the first dog to go into space) in 1957, sacrificed to make Yuri Gagarin’s history-making flight possible four years later in 1961. Some know how, in the same year, a grinning American chimpanzee called Ham gazed down on Earth’s blue oceans and snow-white clouds from above, months before human astronauts Alan Shepherd and John Glenn enjoyed the same magical view.

But these are just the most famous “animal astronauts”. Many others have flown into space over the years. During the recent 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s historic landing on the Moon, many of the TV documentaries and films released to celebrate it told the story of how the brave crew of Apollo 8 were the first human beings to reach and orbit the Moon; none of them told their viewers that those astronauts were not the first of Earth’s children to reach and orbit the Moon. Three months earlier, the Russian Zond 5 capsule rounded Earth’s satellite, carrying strange passengers: the first living beings to see Earth-rise from the Moon were not square-jawed Apollo astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders, but a pair of rather bewildered tortoises – and to this day no-one knows their names…

In July 1959, two years after Laika’s flight and ten whole years before Neil Armstrong took his “One small step”, a veritable “Ark in space” was launched by the Russians. A space capsule carrying two dogs and the first rabbit in space – “Marfusha” or “Little Martha” – blasted off, returning to Earth several days later. All its brave animal crew survived.

My book book tells the story of another “animal astronaut” hardly anyone has heard of: Felicette, the first cat to journey into space. It would be the first full-length book written about her.

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It is ironic – and very unfair – that while Laika is famous around the world, less well-known is the story of Felicette, the first cat to fly into space, six years after Laika. My book tells Felicette’s story – where she came from, how she was selected, how she trained, and what happened during – and after – her flight. It describes the rocket and capsule she flew in, and the legacy of her brief flight. It looks at the ways Felicette has been honoured since her 1963 mission – a bronze statue of her was recently unveiled in Germany – and looks ahead to how she might be honoured in the far future, by the men and women who travel to make their homes on the planets orbiting other stars. It also includes Felicette-inspired poetry, written by myself, such as “I Like To Think“.

I should make it clear that my book is not a diluted, sugar-coated version of Felicette’s story. It is an honest and often emotional account of what happened to her, and how I – as a writer and an animal lover – feel about it. It is a fact that after her flight Felicette was put to sleep so the scientists could study how her body had been affected by her experience, and I do not skirt around the issues or emotions raised by that.

There is a short film about Felicette available on You Tube

Laika is famous around the world, which is only right and fair. Felicette’s story deserves to be known too.

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FELICETTE THE SPACE CAT

SAMPLE CHAPTER:

 

1:  Félicette – The Beginning

If you research the story of Félicette online you’ll find that her origins are shrouded in more than a little confusion. Many websites and blogs say she was a stray cat, plucked off the streets of Paris, but that’s not true. Laika – who was not, as some say, the first dog to go into space but was the first dog (in fact the first living creature) to orbit the Earth – was a stray, certainly, but Félicette was not. In fact, Félicette was obtained, along with 13 other cats, from a “pet dealer”.

Which one? No-one knows. Where were they? Again, unknown.

Obtained… Now what does that mean? How were they obtained? That’s just the first of many mysteries that make up Félicette’s fascinating story…

Let’s be honest here. Considering the large number of cats involved, it’s likely that it was all arranged very formally and officially. Presumably a Parisian cat dealer was contacted by post or over the phone and asked if they could supply a large number of cats for use in a scientific project and they did so in a cold, efficient business transaction. Occam’s Razor suggests that some time later the cats were duly delivered in and unloaded from an unremarkable van in equally unremarkable boxes or crates. That makes perfect, if dull, sense.

But that scenario still poses intriguing question about the dealer. Where did they get the cats from? Did they have breeders supplying them with cats, or did they drive around Paris scooping cats up off the streets like the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang until they’d filled their order? If so, Félicette might have been a stray after all…

If Pixar, Disney or Spielberg ever make a film of Félicette’s story, I’m sure her origins will be shown with more than a hint of artistic licence. After the opening title fanfare and credits the music will die down and the screen will fill with an aerial shot looking down on an un-named street somewhere in Paris. As a caption tells the audience it’s a summer’s day in early August 1963, the camera will swoop down towards the ground, aiming for a door, the door to an unidentified shop. Standing outside the door is a tall man, looking very serious in a dark suit, with an even more serious expression on his face. He pushes on the door and it swings open with the sound of a tinkling bell, and as he steps inside we see the shop is a pet shop, crammed full of toys, feed, boxes, everything a loving pet owner could want. But the man strides past all this clutter, ignoring it, and all the other customers browsing too as he heads purposefully towards the back of the shop, clearly on a mission. As he pushes through a door at the rear of the shop he is met by a nervous-looking young woman who points towards a large cage on the floor. Inside are more than a dozen cats, some wrestling in a tangle of legs and tails, some skipping about or playing with toys, a few sitting on their own, including one small black and white cat that seems to be the outsider in the group. The man walks across to the cage and examines its contents. Anyone else would smile, or laugh, amused by the antics of the cats, but he just looks down, and nods. “Perfect,” he says coldly, “I’ll take them.” How many? asks the young woman nervously. The man looks at her with a cool disregard. “All of them…”

Did it happen anything like that in real life? Who knows. But however they were “obtained”, the first obvious question is: why cats?

Six years earlier a Russian dog called Laika had flown into space, and had become a global superstar as she circled the Earth, travelling where no dog had gone before – into orbit. Not that pretty, sweet-natured Laika had a chance to enjoy her fame; her mission had always been designed to be strictly one-way and she had died in space – horribly, it was only revealed many years later – seven hours or so into her flight, after just four orbits of the Earth. Her lifeless body then remained orbiting our planet inside Sputnik 2 for another five months before it burned up as a shooting star in Earth’s atmosphere.

After Laika more dogs had flown into space, and other animals too, and soon many countries, not just the duelling post-war Superpowers, decided they needed to be “in space”, for reasons of security, technological progress and, of course, national pride. The French were no exception, and they decided they needed to claim a lane in the Space Race. But instead of using dogs, or chimpanzees, they went with a rather smaller animal.

But not a cat.

On February 22nd 1961 France became the third country to send an animal into space when they launched a rat called Hector into space. Nine months later two more unnamed rats followed in Hector’s paw-steps – but there’s only so much you can learn from something as small as a rat. For the French, it was time to up their game. But rather than launching yapping dogs or gibbering chimpanzees into space as the Russians and Americans respectively had already done, the French space authorities decided, with typical French contrariness, to use cats.

Why? Officially the reason was that French scientists had already accumulated a lot of data about the neurology of (translation: experimented on) cats, so were well placed to be able to see how a cat would be affected by going into space. Maybe they were also drawn to cats for practical reasons – because they were smaller than dogs and so would need a smaller capsule. Maybe they thought cats, being famously independent, were more suited to flying in space on their own in a confined space. Or maybe it was because cats were and are still thought of as much more intelligent, elegant and sophisticated than dogs (and certainly grinning chimpanzees!) and so were somehow seen as more… French.

Whatever the reason, the decision was taken to send a cat into space onboard a French rocket, and the authorities started to plan the historic mission. Six years earlier Laika had been sent into space on a very ambitious mission which would see her orbiting the Earth several times over many hours. The first space cat’s mission would be much less ambitious: they would go on a sub-orbital flight, basically rocketing straight up into space before coming down again only a handful of minutes later.

And there was another huge difference too. The scientists who sent Laika into space had packed her into her Sputnik 2 capsule knowing full well they were sending her to her death: the spacecraft had been built in a hurry, without any of the systems needed to return it, and its occupant, safely to Earth, so Laika was always going to die in space, one way or another. Laika was under a death sentence from the moment she was chosen. But the first space cat’s mission would end with it returning to Earth safely again, after its capsule was jettisoned from its rocket and descended on parachutes. Once the capsule was located on the ground it would then be recovered and its feline occupant carefully retrieved from inside, hopefully still very much alive.

Although this mission profile was nowhere near as complicated as Laika’s orbital  mission it was still very challenging. If they could do all that, the French space scientists thought, they would gain priceless information about the effects of space travel on living creatures, information which would bring forward the glorious day a French astronaut followed Gagarin into orbit.

But first they needed a cat.

However they were “obtained” and however they arrived at the space centre, 14 felines – all of them female – were eventually delivered to the space scientists and the selection process began in earnest. It’s easy to imagine all those white-shirted men standing in front of the cats, peering down at them, looking at them closely as they tumbled about excitedly, pulling on each other’s ears and pushing their claws and noses through the bars of the cage they were held in.

We know that at this stage none of the cats had names. They came from the mysterious dealer without names, of course, and after arriving at the space centre were given identities consisting only of numbers and letters- a deliberate attempt to stop the scientists and others who would handle them becoming too attached to them.

We also know, thanks to photos taken later during their training, that there were cats of all different shapes and breeds in the group of “flight candidates”. Those grainy pictures show a selection of brown and whites, tabbies, black and whites, all kinds of cats. Looking at the line up there are two jet black cats, both of which would have looked very much at home keeping a cackling witch company in her cottage in the woods. Another is a very pretty, delicate-looking ginger and white cat with huge, orb-like eyes, apparently quite a lot younger than the rest. Yet another is an older, big bruiser of a girl, her broad white face dabbed with two very distinctive black patches, one on her chin and the other on her nose, standing out starkly, like birthmarks. One other striking member of the group appears to have a lone black splodge just above her top lip, making comparisons with Hitler unfortunate but inevitable.

And there, always on the end of the line in every photo, is a small, black and white tuxedo cat, probably the smallest of the whole group. Two months after those group photos were taken, this little cat would make history and be given a proper name – Félicette. But during her training and flight she was known only as “C341”.

On some of those photos C341’s eyes are narrow slits, as she looks with suspicion at the strange new world she has found itself in. On other photos the cat’s eyes are wide, either with alarm or fear, it’s impossible to tell. There’s no way of knowing because on all but a handful of the photos all that is visible of C341 – and of any of the cats – is her face.

Or rather, her head.

And this, I think, is one reason why Félicette’s story is not as widely known as Laika’s.

Do a Google image search for “Laika” and you will be rewarded with page after page of photos showing her looking happy and almost carefree. I’ve actually done just that to help me write this chapter. Here she is pictured standing on a table; there she is being held by one of her handlers, or standing up in her capsule; further down the page she is shown wearing her harness and being petted by someone. On every photo she actually looks excited to be where she is, and you can almost see her tail wagging and hear her yipping happily as she is prepared for her date with destiny. And on so many of the photos we can see all of her.

Not so the French “space cats”. A similar Google image search for photographs of them will fill your screen with images that are very… different.

To appreciate how different we need to go back in time to the heady early days of the US space program, when the triumphant landing of Apollo 11 was many years away and Flying In Space was actually still the stuff of science fiction. In the early 1960s, at the same time the space cats were being chosen, the US test pilots and naval aviators who had passed their gruelling and invasive training to qualify to become astronauts were revealed to the world during high profile press conferences. Those Mercury and Gemini astronaut candidates were led out like Love Island contestants and seated behind a long desk, dressed in sharp suits, their square jaws jutting out, #1 haircut stubble on their heads, grinning, laughing and joking with the press, swapping Alpha Male banter with each other, basking in the attention, happy to be there.

The most common images of the “space cats” shows them all lined up on display too, but unlike Alan Shepherd and John Glenn they are clearly not happy to be there.

Unlike Laika they are not seen standing up, tails wagging, ears pricked, looking wide-eyed at the world around them; all we can see of them are their heads sticking out of what look like small white, wooden or metallic bird boxes, or even upright coffins, lined up on a shelf like ornaments. They look like they have been thrown into medieval stocks as some kind of punishment. It’s obvious they can’t move inside their boxes, not even a little, and anyone who knows how restless cats can get if held still for even a few moments looks at those photos and realises how utterly miserable they must have been.

To make matters worse, the photos show the cats have what appear to be large Lego bricks sticking out of their heads. These are actually packages of electrodes, surgically implanted into their brains to monitor their neurological activity during their flight. They are ugly things, abominations really, and many – myself included – believe that they are the reason why the story of the “space cat” is known by so few people: newspaper editors, magazine editors and other media outlets were understandably reluctant to use photos showing cute pussy cats apparently transformed into Frankenstein monsters by heartless space boffins.

Where Laika looks like a normal dog on her photos, albeit a normal dog in a very unusual place, the French space cats have been reduced to disembodied heads, like something from a science fiction or horror film. It’s as if their bodies don’t exist, and all the scientists are interested in is the half pound or so of pale pink blancmange hidden inside their skulls.

If you go onto the popular online video sharing website YouTube you can find – very easily, actually – a nine-minute long film with footage of Félicette being prepared for her flight. I personally find it deeply disturbing in many places, and I’ll be referring back to it many times over the next few chapters, so it might be a good idea to stop reading here and go check it out, but one of the most disturbing sequences shows a scientist inserting a lead into the electrode block embedded in one of the space cats’ heads. It’s not done gently, or delicately; it’s done with all the love and consideration of someone impatiently plugging a SCART lead into the back of their TV.

I said earlier how none of the cats had been given names, to prevent the scientists from becoming close to or find of them. Actually, one was given a name, and ironically it was because of those awful electrodes.

While 13 of the cats seemed to have had no adverse reactions to their electrodes, one did, and her health began to deteriorate. To give the mission scientists credit where it’s due, rather than just rejecting the ailing cat and putting her down they removed the electrodes and made the cat the mission mascot, giving her the nickname “Scoubidou” after a scoubidou bracelet they found around her neck.

If you’re wondering what one of those was – and I had to check – the bracelets were nothing to do with the cowardly, snack-munching, crime-solving dog Scooby-Doo; that hugely-popular cartoon series didn’t air until many years later, in 1969 in fact, so there was no connection or link between the two animals. No, a scoubidou was a type of braided, weaved friendship bracelet-type thing, very popular at the time, especially with children. They even featured in a very popular song sung by suave French singer Sacha Distel –-

– hang on a minute…

If the cat was found wearing a bracelet around its neck, doesn’t that suggest it had belonged to someone? Unless it was incredibly clever and made it itself, then somehow slipped it over its own neck to show off to its non-weaving friends, it had that scoubidou put on it by someone, suggesting it was owned by someone, as a pet, doesn’t it? So we’re taken back to the rather awkward question of how the dealer who supplied the cats to the space agency obtained them in the first place. Maybe the “dealer” had rounded up street cats instead of taking them from a breeder? And maybe Felicette was a “street cat” after all?

However the space cats were obtained, Scoubidou had a very lucky escape, thanks to the electrodes that had been fitted to – and rejected – by her skull.

The images taken of the cats fitted with their electrodes are jarring and upsetting, and although we can comfort ourselves with the knowledge that we’d never do that sort of thing today, that it was “a different time” and that “times have changed” when I look at those photos of the cats lined up in their boxes I can’t help wondering how scared and confused they were as cameras clicked and flashbulbs popped around them.

And there on those photos, on the end of the line, is C341, a small, black and white tuxedo cat, staring out from her prison cell box with angry, narrowed eyes, wondering what the hell is going on. Two months later she would be christened Felix by the French media, and then re-christened more appropriately Félicette. But more on that later.

Before she had been “obtained” from the dealer by the space agency, Félicette had been just another cat destined to be bought by someone and taken away to a new life as their family pet. If things had turned out differently, if fate had taken a different turn, she could have ended up in some family home somewhere, living out her nine lives there with a bed beside a crackling fire to curl up and sleep in, food and water freely available, shiny and noisy toys to play with on the carpet and several welcoming laps to choose from when she grew tired. But that life – the life all cats deserve – was stolen from her.

Or was it? Let’s be honest here. Not all cats go to good homes. Perhaps if she hadn’t been taken by that dealer to the space agency that little Tuxedo cat would have gone to a dark place without love and affection; to a place with a cold, bare floor for a bed, scraps of food to live on and no soft laps to curl up on. She might even have been disposed of after a few months if no-one bought her. Maybe she had a lucky escape?

We’ll never know, because fate had other plans for C341. She was destined to go further and higher than any cat had before, and to this day no cat has gone any further or higher than she did in October 1963.

But first, like all astronaut candidates, C341 had to pass her training…




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