ALGERIA – Many people know that the very first living creature to orbit the Earth was a dog, who was launched into space by the Soviets all the way back in 1957.
However, less well known is that French researchers also sent their own animals into space — including the very first ‘cat-stronaut.’
The early days of spaceflight were, of course, filled with uncertainty. Rockets frequently just blew up and no one knew how, or even if, people would be able to survive in a weightless environment. So scientists began to send animals into space to see how they’d survive, though it was a one-way trip for many of them.
For Americans, the animal of choice was a monkey. ‘Albert,’ a rhesus monkey, was the very first animal in space when he was launched from the White Sands Missile Range on a suborbital flight. It would be three more years before a monkey would survive one of these flights, though.
Meanwhile, the Soviets used various animals including mice, rats, and rabbits for their initial tests before settling on dogs. They launched a pair of canines on a suborbital mission in 1951 and safely recovered the two.
Eventually, the Moscow stray dog Laika rode into orbit aboard Sputnik 2, but she ended up dying as expected when she ran out of air.
Once humans made it into space in 1961, animals were relegated to take some lower profile biomedical missions. The U.S. and Soviet Union proceeded to race to the moon, but other countries also made strides into space.
France was among the nations that were building their own rockets. They chose cats as the animals for their spaceflight trials — a team of approximately 14 felines was trained to fly aboard a Veronique AGI rocket for biological research.
The giant leap for cat-kind arrived on October 18, 1963. Just after 8 a.m., the rocket blasted off from Algeria carrying a cat named Félicette, a female tuxedo cat who had been found on the streets of Paris.
Félicette’s suborbital flight lasted just 15 minutes and reached an altitude of 97 miles. She was then recovered safely after the capsule parachuted back to Earth making her the first and only known kitty in space.