Before humans went into space, one of the theories about the dangers of space flight involved the human body would not be able to withstand long periods of weightlessness. We now know that there are several health problems associated with it, including the weakening of bones and muscles – but in the 1950s and 1960s, scientists used animals to test how living organisms coped in space.
One of the better known space-exploring animals was Laika, a dog sent into orbit by the Soviet Union on board Sputnik 2 in 1957. Unfortunately, Laika only survived a couple of hours because of a system failure led to overheating, but four year later, a chimpanzee sent by Nasa successfully orbited the Earth in an hour and half.
There is also a lesser-known animal who survived a trip into space – a little French cat called Felicette.
In 1963, the French had around 14 cats in spaceflight training, which involved high-G training in centrifuges and spending time in compression chambers. Felicette, who began life as a stray on the streets of Paris, was one of the cats destined for space.
The cat had electrodes implanted into her brain so the scientists could record her neural impulses, which were transmitted back to Earth during the spaceflight.
On 18 October 1963, the time arrived for Felicette to board the research rocket Veronique AGI 47, an instrument-carrying rocket which was developed in 1957. The non-orbital flight reached a height of 156km and lasted 15 minutes, after which the capsule separated from the rocket and safely parachuted back to Earth with Felicette on board.
Felicette was unfortunately put to sleep several months after her return so that the researchers could study the electrodes implanted in her, but her mission was successful. Her contribution to scientific research helped pave the way for our modern understanding of spaceflight and its impact on living organisms.