Almost everyone with even a passing interest in “space” knows the story of Laika, the Russian dog that flew into space, though few of them know the true, horrible story of her death. But very few people have any idea that on October 18th 1963, a small black and white cat called “Felicette” was launched into space and returned safely to Earth.
Why? Why is the story of the first “space cat” known by so few people? Maybe it’s simply because she wasn’t a citizen of either of that time’s Space Superpowers – she was French, not Russian or American – so her flight wasn’t seen as particularly newsworthy, little more than a distraction as the US and Russia tried to beat each other to the Moon. Maybe it’s because Felicette didn’t actually go into orbit, but only flew on a suborbital “hop”, a fifteen minute up-and-down again trip. Maybe it’s because, in the few grainy black and white photos we have of Felicette, in contrast to the happy, grinning expressions on the faces of space dogs like Laika, Belka and Strelka on their gleaming, technicolour photos Felicette looks anxious and frightened; one photo I found during my research shows her hissing, teeth bared, looking very angry. Maybe it’s because in the “official photo” of Felicette released to the press at the time she has a ghastly block of electrodes embedded in her skull, looking like some yob lurking in a park had superglued an obscene Lego brick to her head just for a laugh, so newspaper and magazine editors didn’t report on her story for fear of her image distressing readers. Or maybe it’s because her story had a less than happy ending: instead of living a long and happy life after her return, like Belka and Strelka had before her, Felicette was “put to sleep” so she could be disected and her body studied by scientists wanting to see how, or if, she had been affected by her journey into space…
Whatever the reason, 56 years ago today a small cat – a beauty, black and white, with wide, alert eyes – was crammed into a miniature iron lung which was in turn squeezed into a capsule on the top of a French sounding rocket which then carried her into space – and no-one is talking about it. Well, as an amateur astronomer, a writer and a cat lover I’m talking about it; I’m on a mission to get Felicette’s story “out there” and to make sure she is honoured and respected in the same way Laika and other more famous animal astronauts are. I’m giving talks about her, writing features about her and I’m working hard to write a book about her too. But, for today,to mark the anniversary of her historic but overlooked flight, here is a new “astro-poem” about one of the unsung heroines of the Space Age. It was tough to write, and some of you may find it tough to read, but I think Felicette deserves to have her story told honestly. I don’t expect you will enjoy reading it, but if it touches you in some way perhaps you could take a moment to retweet it on Twitter or share it on Facebook or wherever you came across it? I’d be very grateful.
October 18th 2019
I LIKE TO THINK
I like to think that, in a different corner of the Multiverse, you survived.
There, you didn’t lift your curious eyes;
There, when He came looking for cats to send into space
He never saw your face because
In that universe you wisely stayed in the shadows
At the back of the cage, hiding out of sight
As the others leapt into the spotlight,
Meowing, dancing, prancing with delight,
No idea what he had planned as they nuzzled his hand,
Just excited to be going to a new forever home.
Silently, you watched them go, leaving you alone,
Rejected for being too dull, too sullen, too quiet
And shy, judged to be undeserving of the honour of flying
Through the sky to play amongst the stars…
Instead another cat took your place in history,
Had silvery electrodes embedded in its brain,
Was twirled and whirled in a centrifuge, bruised like old fruit.
They were crammed into that Iron Maiden capsule, not you;
Shrink-wrapped in a strait-jacket of buckles, belts and straps
Before being blasted into space,
Returning to Earth fifteen minutes after climbing a single rollercoaster hump –
Then carved up like rump steak in the name of “Science”.
But what happened to you?
I like to think that shop door opened again the next day
And this time you were taken away to a home of your own,
With a roaring fire to lay beside and enough head scratches
And belly rubs to last the rest of your final ninth life.
I like to think you passed away on your sad owner’s lap
Peacefully, with words of love whispered in your ears,
Not drugged on a cold, stainless steel slab
And cut into pieces by “boffins” in masks.
I like to think you died of old age,
Not “euthanised” like our universe’s Felicette – betrayed and slain
By those she had trusted to keep her safe;
The same smiling women and men who softly stroked her head
For the cameras before shaving it and ramming
A shiny circuit board through her eggshell skull.
I like to think you dashed crazily about the house chasing toys,
Skidding on the floor, crashing noisily into cupboards and doors,
Nipping unprotected ankles and wrestling balls of wool
Before nestling in a young girl’s arms and purring loud enough
In your sleep to drown out the sound of the TV
Showing Armstrong walking on the Moon.
© Stuart Atkinson 2019