Thursday, August 19, 2010

When the Cat's Away...


Despite being domesticated for nearly 10,000 years, felines aren't known for being particularly agreeable, trainable, amenable... or really anything other than liable to treat you like kitchen staff.

Cats are pretty much known for just being... cats. Yeah, they purr, but try getting one to fetch the newspaper or even pretend they like you when you aren't scratching their ears or holding a can opener.

In the 1940s-50s, the USSR and USA both considered cats, but neither nation launched any into weightlessness. They either had no analog value, or perhaps made for poor "space-imens". The photo of cats below is from the NASA archives, and I am not sure what's up with the breadboxes, but it was probably to prevent this from happening. (Do not click if you are a serious cat-lover; this is probably the most appalling micro-gravity video ever made.)

France flew the first 3 rats in space, Hector in 1961 and presumably two of his progeny in 1962. The following year, the French Centre d'Etudes et de Recherches en Médecine Aérospatiale (CERMA) actually started out with 10 stray cats, with a tom named Félix being chosen as the first astro-kitty following "training" (whatever that entailed. Would you want to deal with a cat in a centrifuge?!).

In some legends that rather dance to the beat of conspiracy theory, Félix escaped the confines of the craft or was decommissioned for some unknown reason, and replaced by a female feline dubbed Félicette.

On October 18, 1963, one of these cats blasted off in a capsule atop a Véronique AGI sounding rocket, from the Hammaguir test range in the Sahara desert of Algeria. He or she traveled 130 miles into space for 15 minutes, and throughout the trip, cranial electrodes transmitted neurological data back to Earth.

French Space Cats Felix and Felicette
A second test was conducted on October 24, but the flight cat is unknown. It's possible the first flight held Félix and the second actually held Félicette, but the French are oddly mum about the whole thing. Popular belief holds that the first cat was recovered safely, but the second cat died before the rescue team could find its parachuted pod.

In a particular press photo, one can see a tabby cat with implanted headgear; years later, a few French colonies (Comoro Islands, Niger and Chad) created postage stamps with pictures of a black and white cat. Note that on one of these, the crew of Apollo 11 appears alongside Laika the Russian Dog and one of the French cats! Most people agree that the tabby was Félix and the BxW was Félicette.

A particularly charming addition to the Cats In Space phenomena were the scientists afterward distributing "autographed" animal pictures, featuring loving missives from the kitties, along with paw prints. The later would same be done with hand-prints from space-faring chimpanzees.

NASA Kitty
Bonus: A terribly amusing history of the LOLcat Design... check it out!


Sci-Fi Gene said...

I understand you need to stick to the official NASA line Pillownaut but we all know that Felicette is in fact still in orbit today controlling the Goverments of Earth through her telepathic head-implants.

What an amazing article - I'll post a link to it. Cats rule!

Jake said...

Need I remind you that NASA’s budgetary fate is currently slow-roasting in Congressional committees? The last thing we need right now is to lose the support of the Persnickety Cat-Owner constituents (some of whom I happen to know torment their beloved felines more than a mission specialist ever could). And let's not forget that the above feline is one aerosol-based catnip spray away from loving zero-g. Still, it’s just bad timing Pillonaut. Gonna have to ask you to take down that video link until after the NASA budget is squared away.

PillowNaut said...

Thanks Gene! I wish the French had also done a "Secrets of Cat Training" film, LOL...

And sorry Jake, we all gotta take the good with the bad ;) Someone really took a cat up there to see what would happen!! But rest assured NASA had nothing to do with that. It's not easy to qualify for their weightless flights; you must have something to test that is intended for the ISS or a valid scientific experiment. Those look like old Zero-G jumpsuits, the corporation that offers weightless flights for a fee and will also do goofy stuff like weightless-weddings. NASA would not take an animal haphazardly into the air like this, or allow it to be thrown.

Sci-Fi Gene said...

I'm familiar enough with NASA SOP to know that everything would have been organized to fractal degrees of precision: any cat-throwing experiment would have to pass countless committees, would have been preceded by months of underwater trials and training exercises, and would have been carried out according to a strict timeline with Mission Control calling the shots. And I can only imagine what the pre-throw checklist would have looked like.

PillowNaut said...

>>And I can only imagine what the pre-throw checklist would have looked like.

You would need a wheelbarrow to get it on the airplane ;)