As you know, I’m a highly intellectual man (nine GSCEs, including a B in Home Economics) and I take my role as an educator incredibly seriously.
The number of people who have approached me in the street and thanked me for expanding their mind and broadening their knowledge from what they’ve read in this column … well, it’s literally none.
However, I’m going to change that today by telling you about an important anniversary that you may not be aware of – it is 56 years since Felicette went into space.
What’s that? Who’s Felicette?
How dare you. Have a bit of respect. Felicette is, as you must know, the first cat to board a rocket and go into orbit.
That’s pretty exciting isn’t it. I mean the average day of my cat Percy is that we let him out the back door, he plays with Billy and Maurice for a bit (his mates from number 5 and 8), kills a sparrow, deposits a motion on next door’s garden path, comes back for his tea, has his belly scratched for a bit, then falls asleep on the window sill. Never once have I put a helmet on his head, stuck him on a rocket, and said, ‘enjoy space’.
But then again this isn’t the 1960s, when the Space Race was at its most frenetic and several countries were trying anything they could to edge ahead.
Felicette’s moment of fame came when the French became the third country – after Russia and the US – to launch an animal into space.
The reason they used animals, of course, is because they were trying to work out whether it was safe to send one of us human beings up.
Famously Russia became the first country to send a living creature up when they stuck a presumably petrified stray dog called Laika on a rocket in 1957. Laika, three at the time and with all his little doggy years ahead of him – I’m pausing here to wipe a tear from my eye - became the first animal to orbit the earth … though he didn’t get chance to celebrate his success because about two hours into the flight (on his fourth orbit of the earth and just as he was thinking, ‘this space stuff is all very well and good but I’m dying for someone to throw me a stick so I can fetch it’), he overheated and exploded in spectacular fashion. Spare a thought at this point not just for Laika, but the chap who had to clean the rocket afterwards). In 2008 Russian officials unveiled in Moscow a monument in honour of Laika, portraying a dog standing on top of a rocket. A nice touch, though given a choice I’m pretty sure Laika would have preferred a quiet life roaming the streets of Moscow and no statue, rather than being blasted to an early grave.
This mission, incidentally, sparked a worldwide debate about the ethics of using animals in space experiments and in Britain the National Canine Defence League called on all dog owners to observe a minute’s silence.
However, the fuss clearly didn’t affect the scientists too much for so obsessed were they with paving the way for humans to make it to space, they continued their animal research. The US launched a chimpanzee called Ham into space in 1961 (he was – and this is absolutely true – taught to push a lever inside the spacecraft within five seconds of seeing a blue flashing light; failure to do so resulted in a mild electric shock to the soles of his feet while a correct response earned him a banana pellet).
Then, in ’63, came Felicette’s turn to grab the headlines.
The French space centre bought 14 cats from a pet dealer (one can imagine the conversation: ’Fourteen cats, aw, that’s lovely, are they going to good homes?’ “Erm, of a fashion - we’re sticking them on a rocket and blasting them into space. Must dash now, au revoir”). All the cats were female – for their, and I quote the scientists here, ‘calmer demeanour’ (cat females are obviously the opposite of female humans then) – and they weren’t given names in a bid to prevent the scientists becoming emotionally attached to them.
They underwent two months of training (god knows what that consisted of), before, in what was kind of like X-Factor for moggy’s, Felicette was selected as the most suitable of the bunch and prepared for her launch, having microphones fitted on her chest to monitor her breathing and a bewildering array of electrodes attached to pretty much every part of her body.
On 18 October 1963, and with all of France watching on, Felicette was rocketed into space … and there were celebrations all round when she returned alive. She had, against all the odds, survived the mission.
I’d like to say the story has a cheerful ending and she went on to live and long and happy life, becoming something of a celebrity and getting invited to film premieres.
Alas, two months after the launch, she was ‘euthanized’ – or, put another way, murdered – so scientists could perform an autopsy to examine her brain.
France put another cat into space – it died when the flight went wrong - then two monkeys, but then it’s space ambitions faltered a little and it started working with the Soviet Union.
Apart from appearing on a stamp a few years back, poor old Felicette was largely forgotten – until two years ago when a campaign began to recognise her achievements.
Happily, a £40,000 statue is due to be unveiled next year in Eastern France at the International Space University next year, while an astronomical observatory opening at the University of Toulouse in 2021 will be named in her honour.
So there you go, this might have been a rubbish column but when the question ‘what is Felicette the cat best known for?’ comes up at your pub quiz tonight, you know who to thank.