We’re all familiar with the concept of early spaceflight experiments that sent animals into space, including fruit flies, various rodents, all the way up through the quintessential space-monkey. These high-flying menageries were sent aloft to study the effects of travel into space on biological organisms, as no-one at the time knew what would happen to a human being if they were sent to that high an altitude.
The Soviet Union quickly incorporated dogs into their space program, with nine pooches being sent into orbit before Yuri Gagarin’s first flight caused the cessation of the canine conquest of the cosmos. And NASA’s use of trained chimpanzees in the Mercury program demonstrated that a human could operate the controls of a spacecraft, despite the rigors of launch and the uncertainness of the effects of zero-gravity.
But one cosmic critter launch that history seems to have forgotten is that France sent the first (and apparently only) cat into space, a domestic short-haired tuxedo cat from Paris, named Félicette.
Selected from a crack-team of fourteen trained felines, the French Centre d’Enseignement et de Recherches de Médecine Aéronautique (CERMA) launched Félicette aboard her Veronique AGI sounding rocket No. 47 from the Colomb Bacar rocket base at Hammaguir in the Algerian Sahara desert, on 18 October 1963. During the trip, electrodes implanted in her brain allowed the researchers to gather neurological data. Her flight lasted roughly fifteen minutes, and attained an altitude of 100 miles (160 km) before descending back to Earth via parachute. Félicette was reportedly in excellent condition when she was removed from the capsule.
Although the cats that were trained by CERMA weren’t named by the researchers, Félicette gained her name through the press, and also gained the nickname "Astrocat" in Britain. Félicette remained with CERMA for the next three months, as they studied theeffects that her trip had on France’s premier chat de l’espace.