Space Cover #178: Félix or Félicette?
The Soviet Union experimented in the late 1950s with dogs in space capsules to the edge of space and starting in 1957, with a mongrel dog Laika launched aboard Sputnik 2, flew in orbit. Dogs were launched into space until the mid-1960s.
The United States preferred other animals for space travel — namely mice and various varieties of monkeys. Their flights began in 1949. Enos was the first primate to fly into orbit in November 1961. Enos was successfully recovered a few days later.
But what about cats? NASA, based on the NASA photo above showing cats in simulated space suits, did study sending cats into space but never did.
But what about Félicette and Félix? They may not be know to many space enthusiasts but these cats should be! Félicette became the first of the two cats to be sent into space, while Félix had undergone training to be sent. Now the rest of the story...
In 1963 the French government had numerous cats undergoing intensive training for possible space flight, with fairly arduous tasks involving a compression chamber and a centrifuge. But these cats don't seem to have suffered too much; ten of the would-be cat astronauts were 'decommissioned' for eating too much!
Félix was one of those retained, and the one chosen to undertake the first mission. He was apparently a Paris street cat, although one report says he was bought by the French government from a dealer. However, it seems that Félix managed to escape right before the flight and thus replaced at the last minute by a female cat, Félicette, so it was she who, on the launch date of October 18, 1963, blasted off in a special capsule on top of French Véronique AG1 rocket No. 47, from the Colomb Bacar rocket base at Hammaguir in the Algerian Sahara desert.
She did not go into orbit, but in a flight lasting less than 15 minutes travelled about 120 miles into space, where the capsule separated from the rocket and descended by parachute. Throughout the flight electrodes implanted in her brain transmitted neurological impulses back to a ground station, and the French Centre d'Enseignement et de Recherches de Médecine Aéronautique (CERMA), which directed these flights, stated afterwards that the cat had made a valuable contribution to research. The capsule and Félicette were safely recovered, but what happened to her after her adventure is not know. The British press of the time called her the 'Astrocat'. There was another cat (cannot find any reference to the name of this cat) who was launched on a similar flight on October 24th, but there was a problem with the capsule recovery and when it was finally recovered two days later the unfortunate cat had died.
Unfortunately, for historical accuracy the philatelic world has never gotten cats in space correct. Though Félicette flew into space, Félix gets all the credit! Félix was commemorated on two postage stamps from former French colonies some 30 years after the historic voyage. One, issued in 1992 by the Comoro Islands (top), is from a set showing various rockets and the animals Laika and Ham, another space-going chimp. In 1997, Chad produced a series of sheets showing many aspects of space travel. The one with Félix also includes Laika, as well as astronauts Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin and their Saturn V rocket (bottom).
However, the good news is the stamps actually show an image of Félicette, and the bad news is Félix is written as their caption, because the photos above left - a press photo of the time — shows Félix to be a tabby and not black and white. Félicette is thought to be the black-and-white cat shown above right. The inscription on the photo, together with her pawprint, reads in French 'Merci pour votre participation à mon succès du 18 octobre 1963,' which means 'Thank you for taking part in my success of 18 October 1963.'
This philatelic cover is a first day cover for a Bow-Wow Local Post stamp to mark the tenth anniversary of the flight stating' "FELIX" / french "pussy cat" in space ' and showing a tabby cat on the blue stamp, so it seems to also be inaccurate. Thanks to Patrick Roberts for photos and information for several parts of this post.
The extremely rare cover at the top of the post is a cover posted on the actual flight date on October 18, 1963 from the Hammaguir range. This is only the second cover I have ever seen for this flight - the cover shown is from the collection of Steve Durst. It also shows Félicette but states Félix flew into space. The other cover I saw like this I believe was in a space philatelic exhibit by the late Georges Lauwers - as Steve's cover originated from Europe could they be the same cover? Anyone else have a cover for the fllight or ever seen one?
Rare indeed, so if you find one...