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Félicette was one of many animals who were involuntary participants in the early stages of space exploration. The black-and-white cat was rocketed into space on October 18, 1963, by the French space program, becoming the first, and only, feline astronaut. Over 50 years after her successful flight, a Kickstarter project is crowdfunding to honor her memory with a public statue.
“I was touched by how, out of all the animal astronauts’ stories, Félicette’s story seems to be the one that’s become twisted the most over the years, with some people even thinking she was a male cat named Felix,” Matthew Serge Guy, who created the statue project, told Hyperallergic. “By proposing a statue, I guess I was hoping to set her story straight in a big way.”
As Guy, a creative director at Anomaly London, explains on the Kickstarter page, he discovered her story on a tea towel in their staff kitchen. The representation on the towel didn’t look much like Félicette, or include her name, but he was drawn to the overlooked history. Even later, commemorative stamps for her journey called her by the male name “Felix.”
She was chosen out of a group of 14 kitties as the most calm and ready for the arduous trip on a Véronique AG1 rocket. It was launched from Hammaguir, Algeria, and the French astrocat spent five minutes weightless, propelled to a height of 157 kilometers, before parachuting back to Earth. Remarkably, Félicette survived, and was studied for two or three months in a laboratory. Then she was euthanized so scientists could examine the electrodes planted in her brain. Some space animals were celebrated as heroes: Ham, the “astrochimp” who was the first hominid sent to space in 1961, was buried at the International Space Hall of Fame, and Laika, the Soviet space dog launched on Sputnik 2 in 1957, has a bronze at the Star City cosmonaut training facility, there is no memorial for this small cat. Félicette was confined to obscurity.
“I guess by the nature of most statues, an individual has to take the spotlight,” Guy stated. “But they are a symbol of many others. Certainly, the other 13 cats involved in the French space program also had a normal cat’s life taken away from them — I couldn’t find any real information on what happened to them.” He added, “I see it as similar to how Laika’s memorial also speaks to the several other Soviet canine astronauts.”
If the crowdfunding is successful, the statue is planned to be designed by sculptor Gill Parker, known for her animal bronzes, and installed in Félicette’s hometown: Paris. A preliminary sketch depicts a cat and a rocket, with a plaque featuring supporters’ names.
Before humans experienced weightlessness, and traveled to the Moon, there were these animals who gave their lives to a mission they could not possibly understand. Félicette followed Hector, a rat launched by the French space program in 1961; spiders Arabella and Anita spun webs on Skylab 3 in 1973; two tortoises were stowed on the 1968 Soviet spacecraft that circled the Moon. And many more unnamed animals were employed over the decades. In the glory surrounding humans’ advancement into space, the use of animals for testing is often forgotten. A tribute to Félicette could recall and memorialize these unwilling sacrifices.
A statue to Félicette, the first cat in space is funding through November 17 on Kickstarter.