For the first time since the shuttle program ended in 2011, two American astronauts went to space on an American spacecraft, SpaceX’s Dragon. The astronauts hung out at the International Space Station and returned safely back home. Next, NASA launched a new rover called Perseverance to Mars. And, of course, the United States officially has a Space Force now. There’s a nifty logo and motto: “Semper Supra” (Latin for “Always Above”). With all eyes turned to the stars, I began to wonder: should we bring a cat to space?
Historically, cats have been the companions of adventurers. Roman legions brought cats with them on their campaigns. Sailors kept cats on their ships as they crossed unknown oceans. Cats have even been to Antarctica. A tabby cat called Mrs. Chippy joined Ernest Shackleton on the Endurance’s frozen, ill-fated expedition.
Of course, animals were the original test pilots for space missions. Mice, rabbits, monkeys, apes, frogs, dogs, rats, guinea pigs, fruit flies, and even tortoises have been sent to space. Most notably, a cat has already been sent to space and lived to meow about it. Back in the 1960s, the French had a feline space program. They trained fourteen cats. The cat who was chosen to be the first astronaut—I mean “astrocat”—was named Félicette. What happened next to Félicette is eerily reminiscent of Grant Morrison’s ground-breaking comic series, We3. In We3, three animals (Bandit the dog, Tinker the cat, and Pirate the rabbit) are given robotic body armor and skull implants as part of a government project. Like Tinker the cat, Félicette had an electrode implanted in her head. She was shot up in a capsule attached to a French Veronique AG1 rocket. Félicette made it through the ordeal. Apparently, she was a remarkably calm cat.
In popular culture, cats have had starring roles in science fiction adventures. Who can forget the amazing ginger cat Jones, aka “Jonesy,” in Ridley Scott’s masterpiece Alien. Jones was a much-loved member of the crew on the ship Nostromo. This cat inspired Sigourney Weaver’s character, Ripley, to risk her life. In the movie, when Ripley finally reaches safety from the relentless acid-bleeding alien that killed all the other crew members, she decides to turn around and head back into danger to save Jonesy. She literally goes back for the cat! (Admit it: we all breathed a sigh of relief when Ripley left Jones on Earth in the sequel Aliens.)
Not to mention, cats have boldly gone where no one has gone before. Spot the cat was Data’s BFF on Star Trek: The Next Generation. That cat charmed its way into the android’s emotionless heart. He played with her and worried endlessly over her diet and took her to the sick bay when she was pregnant. Data even composed a poem for his cat—“An Ode to Spot.” Data’s love for Spot humanized him.
Finally, there’s ALF from the 1980s television series of the same name. While not set in space, ALF, an acronym for Alien Life Form, is about a fuzzy orange alien who likes to eat cats. He lives with a family on Earth and is always threatening to devour the family’s cat, Lucky, who bears a striking resemblance to my own cat. ALF eventually comes to love cats after meeting a kitten and adopting it instead of eating it. Talk about a redemption arc.
Which brings us back to the original question of whether we should bring a cat to space. Taking a cat to Mars, for instance, isn’t going to be a walk in the park. Mars is dangerous. It’s freezing cold, has no breathable atmosphere, and is pelted with deadly radiation. It is inhospitable to life itself! It’s also far away—millions of miles from Earth. Then there’s the problem of not knowing if humans or animals on Mars will be able to return to Earth because of the adverse effects of Mars’s gravity on bones and muscles. It may literally be a one-way trip. So why bring a cat?
From a practical standpoint, cats are just easier than dogs. Dogs require a lot of care. They have to be walked. They need wide-open spaces to run around and can catch tennis balls. It doesn’t seem humane to cage a dog in a small vessel on what may be a months-long trip to a distant planet. But cats are mellow. They don’t need a ton of attention. Cats are notorious for wanting to be left alone. Their requirements are simple—food, water, a warm lap, a piece of yarn, and they are good to go. Also, cats like cozy spaces. Ask any cat owner: cats always manage to find a nook or cranny to curl up in and nap.
In writing my novel The Lion of Mars, I thought about all of these things. The story takes place in the American settlement on a futuristic Mars in the year 2091. The main character is an eleven-year-old boy named Bell, and I wondered if I should give him a pet. I confess that I am a cat person. While my childhood pet was a dog (RIP Ruffy, best doggo ever), cats have been the pets of my adulthood. But more than that, they have been my children’s pets. And I have come to realize that you can never underestimate the relationship between a human and a cat. On my son’s lowest day in middle school, who did he turn to? Our cat. Augi is an affectionate, undemanding furry friend who was content to let my son pour his heart out to him. That’s why I decided Bell didn’t just need a pet—he needed a cat.
The first settlers to live on a distant planet like Mars are going to be far from everything familiar. They will be scared and lonely and isolated. They will need something to help them survive and thrive. Something more than courage and the thrill of adventure. Something that only a cat can provide. Like Ripley and Jonesy, a cat will give us someone to go back for. Like Data and Spot, a cat will give us someone to love and protect. Like my son and Augi, a cat will provide comfort. Without that, we’re just empty shells, going through the motions. We need something to remind us of our humanity. Even Alf offers a good message: don’t eat your companions. (Looking at you, Donner Party!)
Dogs may be man’s best friend on Earth, but I have a hunch cats will be man’s best friend in space.
Jennifer L. Holm is a New York Times bestselling author and three-time Newbery honoree and the author of The Lion of Mars (Random House, January 2021). She has two cats, named Augustus and Livia after the Roman emperor and empress. Her children are trying to talk her into getting a third cat. You can find her at her website.