France’s first astro-critter came late to the space game. Her name was Felicette and she was launched on a 15-minute suborbital flight on October 18, 1963. By then, the U.S. had already launched half a dozen astronauts, and the Soviet Union had sent an equal number of cosmonauts, including Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space. But France staked its claim all the same, and Felicette became the first cat to make the journey.
In 1963, Centre d’Enseignement et de Recherches de Médecine Aéronautique (CERMA) purchased 14 cats from a pet dealer for the testing, with the individual animals selected based on their temperament; all of the cats were female, for their calmer demeanor. The cats were unnamed prior to the launch to reduce the likelihood that the scientists would become attached to them.
All of the cats had permanent electrodes surgically implanted into their brain to assess neurological activity. Some of the cats’ spaceflight training was similar to training for humans. This was carried out by CERMA and included using the high-G centrifuge three-axis chair with simulated rocket noise. Cat-specific training included confinement in their container and experience withstanding the restraint cloth. The animals trained for about two months; this limit was set by the risk of electrode polarization.
A feline stand-in demonstrates the equipment used to launch Félicette into space atop a Veronique AG147 rocket, on Oct. 16, 1963. (Photo: Getty Images)
The launch crew began preparing at the launch site on October 8, 1963. On October 11, the heading beacon was tested by placing it in a helicopter and tracking it with ground stations. On the 12th, the telemetry in the nose cone was unsuccessfully tested, followed by a successful test the next day. There were issues testing the homing beacon on the 14th and 15th, but all of the electronics functioned to a satisfactory level on October 16.
On October 17, six feline finalists were selected as candidates for the flight, and a tuxedo cat with the designation C 341 was chosen for the flight on launch day, along with a backup. Weighing in at 2.5 kilograms (5.5 lb), C 341 was selected as the best of the six finalists due to her calm demeanor and appropriate weight. Electrodes were attached to her forward left and right rear leg to monitor cardiac activity. Nine electrodes had previously been implanted on her skull: two in the front sinus, one in the somatic area, two in the ventral hippocampal, two in the reticular area, and two in the association cortex. Two electrodes were glued to a foreleg so that electrical impulses could be used to stimulate them during the flight. Two microphones, one on her chest and one on the nose cone of the rocket, monitored her breathing. The launch vehicle used was the Véronique AGI 47 sounding rocket, made in Vernon, Haute-Normandie. The Véronique rocket came from the German World War II Aggregate rocket family, developed for International Geophysical Year in 1957 for biological research.
On October 18, 1963 at 8:09 am, C 341 was launched into space from the Centre interarmées d’essais d’engins spéciaux site in Algeria. The mission was a sub-orbital flight and lasted 13 minutes. The rocket engine burned for 42 seconds on ascent and C 341 experienced 9.5 g of acceleration. The nose cone separated from the rocket before reaching a height of 152 kilometers (94 mi) and the cat was subjected to five minutes of weightlessness. Prior to parachute deployment, spin and vibration on the nose cone caused 7 g of acceleration. The parachutes deployed 8 minutes and 55 seconds into the launch, applying 9 g. Thirteen minutes after the rocket was ignited, a helicopter arrived at the payload. C 341 was recovered safely, and the mission made her the first cat to reach space.
“Space Cat Back Alive.” The Sydney Morning Herald, Oct. 20, 1963.
High quality data was recorded throughout the flight, other than the reticular measurements and data recorded during reentry. Electrical shocks were administered to C 341 at a higher rate than intended. She was vigilant during the ascent phase, due to being a payload in a rocket. During the microgravity phase, her heart rate slowed and her breathing became nominal. The turbulent reentry caused her heart rate to rise, but poor data made it difficult to analyze. The flight’s biological data were given to the media, who named C 341 “Félix” after the Félix the Cat cartoon series. CERMA changed it to the feminine Félicette and adopted the name as official. Félicette was euthanized two months after the launch so that scientists could perform a necropsy to examine her brain.
France continued its biological payload research, changing to monkeys. A monkey known as Martine was launched on March 7, 1967 and Pierrette six days later. They were both successfully recovered. France concluded biological payload research at the national level with these flights, but later worked on biological payloads with the Soviet Union in the 1970s.