A short video of astronauts gently throwing cats around under weightless conditions in an aircraft begs the question whether it is ethical. It also provokes me to think of how animals were used in the early days of space travel.
Early space flights using animals
Before humans were sent up into space the early space missions were deemed to be too risky for the precious human and therefore they sent up dogs, cats, mice, monkeys, insects and even fish. We don’t know what happened to all of them but we do know that a dog named Laika was used and arguably abused as a guinea pig for the former Soviet Union’s launch of its Sputnik 2 spacecraft.
We are told that the dog expired a few hours after the launch. The spacecraft survived the whole process so we don’t know why Laika died. A monkey called Ham were sent into sub-orbit on January 31, 1961. His space travel was the precursor of a successful 1961 launch for Alan Shephard, the first American astronaut. The monkey had been abused during training based on the article by Bruce Dorminey on the Forbes website. He died in retirement at Carolina Zoo at 26. Okay he was confined to a zoo. Not great.
The animals used in early space flight tests were expendable. The stakes were high for the Russians as they had to catch up with the Americans and there was no question for them that they had to abuse these animals. Without this animal abuse it is probable that the Russian space race would not have progressed because they were simply too scared to send up humans as there were too many uncertainties.
The short video of cats is not particularly disturbing because there’s nothing to indicate that they were harmed. However it is a clear abuse of the domestic cat. In the words of PETA, animals are not ours to experiment on and these astronauts are experimenting with a help of domestic cats.
I suspect that the weightlessness lasted for a short time. Therefore I would expect there to be no lasting negative health consequences. However, long-term weightlessness does cause health issues some of which are severe.
Cats’ self-righting mechanism (reflex)
I suspect that the video shows us how astronauts analysed, for their benefit, the domestic cat’s self-righting system which we all know so well. Without this mechanism, domestic cats would injure themselves far more often when falling from high places. Knowing how cats do this, assisted astronauts in learning how to move in space outside their spacecraft.
You can see in the video that the astronauts are testing this remarkable self-righting mechanism under weightless conditions.