Cats in Space

Cats in Space. It may sound like it could have been a skit on the original Muppet Show, but along with dogs, chimps, monkeys and a variety of other species cats were part of early space programs. The contributions of our feline friends, along with other animals  who made the ultimate sacrifice, have often gone unnoticed as they became unwilling victims to the advancement of space exploration and human curiosity.

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The U.S while never actually sending cats into space did subject them to a ride on the “Vomit Comet”. Weightlessness, cats and pigeons.

Animals were used in early space programs to gain understanding of biological processes and the effects of space flight and gravity so that human injuries and loss could be reduced. Many countries used animals in early space programs including the U.S. Russia, China and Japan, but France included cats. Among the cats that the French used, who were subjected to a battery of tests including compression chambers, centrifuges and rocket-propelled sleds, a male named Felix and female named Félicette were chosen to be part of the first mission in 1963. Felix however had other plans and went missing just before the mission. Smart Cat.

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Félicette, who was found on the streets of Paris, stepped in to replace Felix as the first cat in space and, on On October 18, 1963 she was launched on the Véronique AG1 rocket from Algerian Sahara desert rocket base. After a 15 minute flight reaching an altitude of 130 miles Félicette made it back safely to Earth – alive. She had electrodes implanted in her brain so that they could measure brain activity and to register any changes that may have happened during the flight. Although Félicette did not actually orbit the Earth she came back a hero and was celebrated for her “valuable contribution to research” however, her celebrity did not last long. Not much is documented about her fate but it was noted in one blog that she was put to sleep not long after so that the electrodes could be studied. The not so glamorous side to the story and the reality of what happens to the majority of cats used in research.

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Cats in simulated spacesuits [NASA archive]

Félicette wasn’t the last cat to go to space, and on October 24 France launched another cat who did not make it back alive. There were problems with the recovery and the delay cost the unknown ‘astrocat’ his or her life.

The story of Félicette and the other cats used in the French space program appear to have quietly slipped away into history, but it’s an important story to be told and one that should not be forgotten.

What does the future hold for cats in space? At the time there doesn’t seem to be any plans for these experiments to be repeated, however recently the Iranian Space Agency announced plans to send a Persian Cat into space. The announcement met with backlash and rightfully so, but whether or not the unlucky feline will make it to orbit is unclear.

Here’s hoping we keep cats, and all other animals, grounded and the only time we see our feline friends visit space is in a video like this.

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When The Vikings Came

Shrouded in myth, the Vikings have been regarded as both explorers and warriors but, much of what we know about them has changed including the role they played in helping  our four-legged feline friends make their way around the world.

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Recent studies into ancient cat DNA has revealed that domestic cats hitched a ride on Viking boats  (Photo: Shutterstock) Image ScienceNordic

Researchers actually know very little about how cats were ‘domesticated’ so the first large-scale study of ancient feline DNA presented this past September in the UK is a big first step towards understanding how our beloved house cats came to be. Eva-Maria Geigl, an evolutionary geneticist at the Institut Jacques Monod in Paris, and her colleagues analyzed mitochondrial DNA from the remains of 209 cats that lived between about 15,000 years ago and the eighteenth century AD, from more than 30 archaeological sites across Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

The first wave of cat expansion is something that most are familiar with – wild cats from the Middle East moved with early farming communities to the fertile Eastern Mediterranean. The cats were attracted by the rodents, who were attracted by the grains being stored by the farmers, and humans seeing the benefits they provided decided to keep the cats around. The discovery of a 9,500 year-old grave in Cyprus containing a cat buried with a human, suggests that the connection between felines and humans go as far back as 12,000 years.

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(Upper right) A human skeleton in Cyprus in a 9,500-year-old grave. Inches away, a cat was carefully buried, as seen in the lower section of the image.  Image – NBC News

During the second wave of expansion thousands of years later, cats descended from those in Egypt (It is generally thought that Ancient Egyptians tamed wild cats about 6,000 years ago) quickly spread throughout Eurasia and Africa. “A mitochondrial lineage common in Egyptian cat mummies from the end of the fourth century BC to the fourth century AD was also carried by cats in Bulgaria, Turkey and sub-Saharan Africa from around the same time.” It is very likely that sea-faring people like the Vikings kept cats on board their boats to help keep the rodent population down said researchers, who also discovered cat remains, with the same maternal DNA lineage present in the Egyptian cat mummies, at a Viking site in northern Germany dating to between the eighth and eleventh century AD.

Upon seeing the results of the first large-scale study of ancient feline DNA at the conference, Population Geneticist Pontus Skoglund from Harvard Medical School told Nature that he “didn’t even know there were Viking cats.” However, according to conservator Kristian Gregersen from the Natural History Museum of Denmark, the Vikings most certainly had domestic cats and that “people commonly wore cat skins by the late Viking Age.”

Interestingly this evidence seems to support the theory that two very popular and robust breeds the Maine Coon and the Norwegian Forest Cat, could have been brought to America and elsewhere by the Vikings. If you are wondering what that journey may have looked like be sure to click on the link or image below to check out this awesome, we wish it were real, flash-video by Joel Veitch.

VIKING KITTENS – by Joel

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Sunday 17

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If you like this I highly recommend picking up the book How to Tell if Your Cat is Plotting to Kill You by the Oatmeal.