In 1963, a cat named Félicette went where none of her feline ancestors had gone before: nearly 100 miles up into the sky. Riding in a container in the nose of a rocket, the slim tuxedo cat soared through the atmosphere, then landed safely back on Earth a quarter of an hour later. Decades after her brief extraterrestrial trip, the cute astrocat is now finally honored with a statue installed in Pioneer Hall at the International Space University near Strasbourg, France.
The campaign to do right by Félicette started with Matthew Serge Guy, a creative director who was puzzled that the frontier-busting feline hadn’t become a household name. Sending animals to space was controversial, then and now: Many didn’t survive the journey, and even those that did were often subjected to extensive testing and painful surgeries (including one to implant electrodes in Félicette’s brain).
Still, several other furry spacefarers are better remembered. Russia’s cosmonaut pups spawned a cottage industry of commemorative trinkets, and a monument to Laika, the friendly looking mutt that orbited Earth in 1957 (and died in the process), went up in Moscow in 2008. NASA had sent Miss Baker, a squirrel monkey, into space in 1959, and brought her back alive. She died in 1984 and is buried outside the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, where well-wishers still stop by to heap bananas on her headstone. So, Guy figured, why no love for Félicette?
He got the ball rolling in 2017, with a Kickstarter campaign. With the help of 1,141 backers, the campaign shot past its fundraising goal, bringing in about $56,000. The bronze memorial designed by sculptor Gill Parker debuted in December 2019. It shows Félicette perched on top of the world, with her eyes gazing skyward and her tail draping down over the globe.
Félicette was euthanized a few months after she returned to Earth, Smithsonian reported, so that scientists could more closely scrutinize her body and learn about how space travel affected it. Still, many details of Félicette’s story remain a little fuzzy: She is said to be one of 14 cats recruited by the French space program, but some accounts say that she was purchased from a pet store, while others say she was chosen from among the cats slinking through the streets of Paris. Also, different reports refer to various cats by the same name. Even if a few details remain elusive, one thing’s for sure: While some cats spend their whole lives moving from one puddle of sunlight to another, Félicette rocketed toward the real thing.
Know Before You Go
Guy recommends contacting the International Space University before you visit, to make sure that the statue is on view and accessible.