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!