A Brief History of Félicette, the First Cat in Space

It's a classic zero to hero tale: A stray cat is plucked from the streets of Paris and trained to be an astronaut. This may sound like the plot of a children's book, but the story of Félicette—the first and only cat known to have survived a trip to space—is true.

The black and white cat's unlikely ascent to stardom began in the early '60s, when France's Centre d'Enseignement et de Recherches de Médecine Aéronautique (CERMA) chose more than a dozen cats to complete a rigorous space training program. The French had previously launched three rats into space and apparently decided to upgrade to larger mammals to study their bodily response to weightlessness.

The astrocats-in-training were subjected to compression chambers, small containers, and a centrifuge, all in an effort to find the feline that was the best fit for space. Félicette ultimately proved herself, and in October 1963, she was strapped into a container inside a Véronique rocket and launched from a base in the Sahara desert. She flew about 100 miles above Earth and spent several minutes in zero gravity, all while scientists monitored her progress via the electrodes implanted in her brain.

Then, almost as soon as she arrived, the capsule detached from the rocket and she parachuted safely to the ground, where she was retrieved by scientists. The trip lasted 15 minutes total.

Félicette's journey to outer space was preceded by Laika, the Russian street dog who became the first animal to orbit the Earth aboard Sputnik 2 in 1957. However, unlike Laika, who died in space, Félicette returned to Earth to live out the rest of her days. Those days, sadly, were numbered. Scientists euthanized her a few months later to study the impact of space travel on her brain.

Although Félicette's adventures were short, many people want to preserve her legacy. In the 1990s, commemorative postage stamps were issued in her memory in some former French colonies. (However, those stamps incorrectly identified her as a male cat named Félix.)

More recently, a Kickstarter campaign was launched last year to raise funds for the construction of a bronze statue of Félicette in Paris. Nearly $55,000 was raised, and according to an update posted in October 2018, the organizers are still looking for a suitable location for that statue.

"It's Félicette's contributions to spaceflight research that will one day allow us to take our cats to the Martian colonies and beyond," a video on the Kickstarter page states. "For that, she deserves her rightful recognition."

10,000 People Gathered at Stonehenge to Welcome the Summer Solstice

Finnbarr Webster, Getty Images
Finnbarr Webster, Getty Images

There are plenty of reasons to welcome the start of summer. Today, people visiting Stonehenge took that celebration to a whole new level.

The BBC reported that an estimated 10,000 people made the pilgrimage to the 5000-year-old site to partake in summer solstice festivities. "Stonehenge was built to align with the Sun, and to Neolithic people, the skies were arguably as important as the surrounding landscape," Susan Greaney, a senior historian at English Heritage, said in a statement. "At solstice we remember the changing daylight hours, but the changing seasons, the cycles of the Moon, and movements of the Sun are likely to have underpinned many practical spiritual aspects of Neolithic life."

These spiritual aspects are just one of the many fascinating facts about the summer solstice; the day is an extremely old calendar event recognized by ancient cultures across the globe. They include the Druids and other pagans, whose tradition of observing the solstice at Stonehenge has long been upheld by modern revelers.

Scientifically speaking, Stonehenge is an optimal viewing place for the solstice due to its structure. According to TIME, the site’s architects appeared to have kept both the summer and winter solstices in mind during its construction, as the positions of the stones are specifically tuned to complement the sky on both occasions.

The solstices were sacred to the pagans, whose modern-day followers continue to honor their rituals. Pagans in particular refer to the day as Litha, and mark it with activities such as meditation, fire rites, and outdoor yoga.

“What you’re celebrating on a mystical level is that you’re looking at light at its strongest," Frank Somers, a member of the Amesbury and Stonehenge Druids, said in 2014. "It represents things like the triumph of the king, the power of light over darkness, and just life—life at its fullest."

Those who were unable to make the journey can head over to the Stonehenge Skyscape project's website, where English Heritage’s interactive live feed fully captured the experience.

Tourists Are Picking Apart Britain's Oldest Tree

Paul Hermans, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

The Fortingall Yew in the Fortingall churchyard in Perthshire, Scotland has seen a lot. Since it started growing at least 2000 years ago, it's been present for the Roman settlement of Scotland, the shift from paganism to Christianity, and the country's induction into the United Kingdom. But after standing for millennia, the ancient tree is facing its greatest threat yet. Tourists are removing twigs and branches from the tree to take home as souvenirs, and the tree is under so much stress that it's spontaneously changing sexes, Atlas Obscura reports.

Because of how the tree grows, it's hard to date the Fortingall Yew precisely. It comprises several separate trunks that have hollowed out over the years, making it easier for the tree to support itself in its old age. Based on historical measurements and 19th-century ring counts, the yew has been around for at least two millennia, but it could date back as far as 5000 years. That makes it the oldest tree in Britain and one of the oldest living things in Europe.

That impressive title means the tree gets a lot of visitors, not all of whom are concerned with extending its lifespan even longer. A stone and iron wall built in the Victorian era encloses the tree, but that hasn't stopped people from climbing over it to break off pieces or leave behind keepsakes like beads and ribbons.

As the abuse adds up, the tree has responded in concerning ways. It sprouted red berries this spring, a sign that the tree is transitioning to a different sex for the first time in its life. Yew trees are either male or female, and sex changes among the species are incredibly rare and misunderstood. Some botanists believe it's a reaction to stress. The change may be a survival mechanism intended to increase the specimen's chances of reproducing.

Scientists aren't sure why this particular yew, which was formerly male, sprouted berries on its upper branches, an exclusively female characteristic, but they've collected the berries to study them. The seeds from the berries will be preserved as part of a project to protect the genetic diversity of yew trees across the globe.

In the mean time, caretakers of the Fortingall Yew are imploring visitors to be respectful of the tree and keep their hands to themselves.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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