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."

The Time the U.S. Government Planned to Nuke Alaska

iStock.com/mesut zengin
iStock.com/mesut zengin

In the 1950s, the idea of harnessing nuclear power was a bit of a public relations disaster. The world at large knew nuclear bombs only as tools of mass death and destruction. But if the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC)—later the Department of Energy—had its way, nuclear explosions would have been reinvented as peacetime assets to humanity.

As proof of concept, the AEC planned to nuke Alaska.

Atlas Obscura details the plot, which reads almost as farce. In the late 1950s, the AEC was developing Project Plowshare, a plan to repurpose thermonuclear weapons to change the literal face of the Earth. Imagine blasting through mountains to create railways or widening the Panama Canal. The instantaneous landscape shifts caused by such weapons were economically attractive—saving on labor costs—and might also provide access to natural resources like oil. The excavation and fracking potential seemed limitless.

In 1958, the AEC and physicist Edward Teller proposed the first step in this bold new direction: Project Chariot. The plan was to detonate a 1-megaton H-bomb near Cape Thompson in Alaska along with several other, smaller explosions to create a crater 1000 feet in diameter and 110 feet deep. The resulting deepwater harbor would facilitate mineral mining and fishing access. The U.S. government rhapsodized about the idea in the media, claiming the then-contemporary weapons had low fallout and would create a port that would be nothing but a net gain for Alaskans.

Residents, however, met these plans with a degree of skepticism. The Inuit population who lived nearby and would have to cope with the radioactive consequences of such a scheme voiced their opposition to the idea. They pointed to earlier test blasts that showed radioactivity showering the vicinity. In 1954, a blast in the Bikini Atoll had a nuclear fallout of 7000 square miles in the Pacific Ocean. Owing to such tests, the Inuit were already demonstrating heightened radioactivity levels. So were the caribou they ingested. The notion of a “clean” nuclear bomb was something no one wanted to test with their own life.

Project Chariot never materialized, and the idea of wielding nuclear power to replace manual labor was laid to rest by 1977.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

Vermont and Maine Are Replacing Columbus Day With Indigenous Peoples' Day

David Ryder/Getty Images
David Ryder/Getty Images

The narrative surrounding Christopher Columbus has shifted in recent years, leading some U.S. states and cities to reconsider glorifying the figure with his own holiday. If the governors of Vermont and Maine sign their new bills into law, the two states will become the latest places to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples' Day, CNN reports.

In 1971, the Uniform Holiday Bill went into effect, officially designating Columbus Day as a federal holiday to be celebrated on the second Monday of October. The holiday was originally meant to recognize the "discovery" of America—a version of history that erases the people already living on the continent when Columbus arrived and ignores the harm he inflicted.

As Columbus's popularity decreases in the U.S., some places have embraced Indigenous Peoples' Day: A day dedicated to Native American culture in history. The holiday is already observed in Seattle, Washington; St. Paul, Minnesota; and Alaska. Earlier this year, Sandusky, Ohio announced they would swap Columbus Day for Voting Day and give municipal workers the election Tuesday of November off instead.

Indigenous Peoples' Day has been celebrated in place of Columbus Day in Vermont for the past few years, but a new bill would make the change permanent. The Vermont state legislature has voted yes on the bill, and now it just needs approval from Governor Phil Scott, which he says he plans to give. If he passes the law, it will go into effect on October 14, 2019 (the date Columbus Day falls on this year).

Maine voted on a similar bill in March, and it gained approval from both the state's Senate and House of Representatives. Like Governor Scott, Maine governor Janet Mills plans on signing her state's bill and making the holiday official.

Regardless of the legal status of Columbus Day, Indigenous Peoples' Day celebrations take place across the country every October. South Dakota hosts Native American Day festivities at the Crazy Horse Memorial each year, and in Seattle, Indigenous Peoples celebrations last a whole week.

[h/t The Washington Post]

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