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c. 1969

How flying cats got us to the moon. Really.

Vintage 1969 photos show how feline motion helped NASA solve its zero gravity problem

Photo illustration

True or false: Drop a cat and it will always land on its feet.

Answer? It’s true—and the reason why it’s true had a very direct and practical application when it came to sending people into space.

For this reason in 1969, NASA contributed funding to the paper “A Dynamical Explanation of the Falling Cat Phenomenon,” published in the International Journal of Solids and Structures, by Stanford’s T.R. Kane and M.P. Scher.

What was so significant about the paper was that it demonstrated that cats are physically capable of rotating their body in mid-air to right themselves when falling. A cat employs specific motor functions in order to achieve this self-righting mechanism, and the paper analyzed these functions as equations that could then be applied to humans.

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While this function isn’t very useful to humans on earth, it’s critically important in space, as astronauts seeks to right their bodies traveling through zero gravity. NASA took the feline movements and taught them to its astronauts.

As these photographs from 1969 show, the role of the cats in space exploration was—quite literally—pivotal.

Ralph Crane/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Ralph Crane/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Ralph Crane/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Ralph Crane/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Professor Thomas R. Kane demonstrating a formula which explains how a cat’s movements can be imitated by astronauts in space.
Ralph Crane/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Ralph Crane/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Ralph Crane/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Ralph Crane/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Ralph Crane/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Ralph Crane/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
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