On October 18 1963, the French government launched a rocket from Algeria 120 miles above the Earth. Inside was a cat named Félicette, who had her skull cut open and electrodes implanted to measure her brain activity. She fell back to Earth in a capsule with a parachute. Several days later, apparently, the French attempted the same thing with another cat, and after the capsule landed, the cat was found dead.
That cruel and useless mission occurred 50 years ago, and it was the first and last time in history that cats were ever launched into space. Without further feline torture, space exploration has advanced by leaps and bounds, and the world has largely moved on from archaic and fundamentally flawed experiments on animals in its quest to travel through space. Apparently, though, Iran is gearing up to repeat the wasteful and deadly mistakes that marked the Cold War-era space race. Iran's outdated experiments with animals in space, seemingly straight from the playbook of Wile E Coyote, are a throwback to the primitive techniques of the 1960s.
In addition to cats, early Soviet and US space programmes used dogs, rabbits, monkeys and chimpanzees, who were strapped into capsules and launched into space in cruel and irrelevant experiments - often with painful and deadly results. The history of space exploration is marred by the wasted lives and terrible deaths of animals, from Russia's first "space dog", Laika, who was baked to death in her capsule, to the hundreds of primates who were irradiated, shocked, restrained, crippled, blown up and otherwise tormented by NASA over many decades.
European and US space agencies have stopped sending cats, dogs and primates into space not only because it is unethical but also because superior, more human-relevant methods of study that don't involve animals are now available. Indeed, NASA has never launched cats or dogs into space and stopped launching primates into space in the mid-1990s following protests by PETA US and the public that prompted Congress to cut funding for the project. In 2010, NASA's plans to begin blasting monkeys with space radiation were cancelled after PETA US as well as physicians, scientists, lay people and NASA engineers voiced strong ethical and scientific objections to the ill-advised plan.
Similarly, the European Space Agency (ESA) - which represents Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK and has a very active space-exploration programme - has publicly stated that it "declines any interest in monkey research and does not consider any need or use for such results". The ESA instead employs modern technology, such as the state-of-the-art human manikin Mastryoshka to assess radiation and other health risks for astronauts.
In recent years, celebrated Russian cosmonaut Valentin Lebedev, who holds a world record for his 211-day space flight, has even weighed in to object to the use of primates for space research, stating that it is "inadmissible for humane reasons" and that these experiments are not needed because "the existing knowledge received from past experience of long time space flights is quite enough right now to predict their influence on people".
Sadly, the cat stunt being planned by Iran is the most recent in a series of ploys to convince the world that it is serious about space travel. In 2011, the Iranian Space Agency (ISA) announced plans to launch a monkey into space, and in early 2013, shocking photos surfaced which appeared to show a visibly terrified monkey crudely strapped into a restraint device in which he was reportedly launched into space. Although the authenticity of the photos was later questioned, the sentiment, if not the reality, was that Iran was about to begin a dangerous mission, which PETA repeatedly urged ISA President Hamid Fazeli not to pursue.
We are pleased to hear that Iran's space programme is intended to fulfil peaceful goals, but that consideration should also be extended to animals. In the interests of progressive science, compassion and Iran's reputation, we've contacted ISA once again asking that it stop shooting animals into space and urging it to put a stop to these useless, misguided missions. Join us in helping to end experimentation on all animals here.