Cats – and other animals – in zero gravity

A few decades ago, the U.S. Air Force wanted to find out what happens when cats experience weightlessness. Watch the experiment in this vintage footage:

The men and the cats are in a Convair C-131 airplane that can simulate the weightlessness you and your feline companions would experience in space. Often called a “Vomit Comet,” the plane follows an elliptic flight path; climbing steeply up and then nose-diving back towards the Earth. The maneuver, according to the film, creates about 15 seconds at zero gravity. That’s when the cats start to fly.

It’s not exactly clear what the Air Force learned from tossing cats around in weightlessness. If you watch the extended version (below) beginning at around the 3-minute mark, you can also watch them toss pigeons, who appear to panic not knowing if they’re flying right-side up or upside-down. Some may say that this experiment represents cruelty to animals, and depending on your definition, they might have a point.

Space agencies around the world have a long history in sending animals into space. You’ve probably heard of Laika, the stray dog blasted into space on the Russian’s Sputnik 2, or Able and Baker, the two monkeys who traveled 300 miles up in the nose of an Army Jupiter missile.  A cat named Felix was the first cat in space, launched into space by France in 1963. Felix survived a parachute descent, but the next French cat in space was not so fortunate. Rabbits and jellyfish have also spent time on shuttles. In 1998, the space shuttle Columbia set a record by sending two thousand creatures into space.

Even today, biological experiments are a regular part of space flights. Students can watch butterflies or spiders develop in zero gravity and compare them to their own, Earth-bound insects. Animals have contributed a lot to our understanding of life in space, and even showed us how to get there. And thanks to this video, we know that there’s no way that a weightless cat can land on its feet.

January 17, 2011

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