TNB Night Owl – Cats Up: Felines In Flight

Falling cats always land on their feet.
Falling cats always land on their feet. Image captured by the News Blender.

Cats are many things, but natural and graceful flyers they are not. However, should a feline find itself airborne, it’s a safe bet that when terra ferma rushes up to meet it, the cat will greet solid ground feet first. Well, most of the time anyway. There is one specific scenario in which a cat almost never lands on its feet.

Humans have probably known that cats land on their feet almost as long as cats have been domesticated. No one knew how cats achieved four-point landings, though, or could even visualize it. In 1894, French scientist Étienne-Jules Marey captured a cat (and other animals) in the act of righting itself during a fall with high-speed photography using a technique called chronophotography.

Chronophotography of a falling cat by Étienne-Jules Marey, 1894.
Chronophotography of a falling cat by Étienne-Jules Marey, 1894.

In the late 1950s, early 1960s, as NASA started contemplated putting astronauts into space, a serious question arose: would astronauts in the microgravity environment of space be able to change orientiation relative to other objects (such as their space capsule) without the aid of Earth’s gravity or anything solid to push against? To find out, they needed a lab to experiment in under similar conditions.

German rocket scientists working for NASA (who had previously been employed by the Third Reich during the war) theorized as early as 1950 that the microgravity of space found just outside of Earth’s atmosphere could be simulated within Earth’s atmosphere with an aircraft on a specific flight trajectory. That trajectory is an imaginary parabolic arc the aircraft follows which permits passengers in the plane to experience about 25 seconds of simulated weightlessness. To achieve that arc, an aircraft climbs rapidly for 20 seconds at a 45° angle. The pilot then throttles back and pushes the nose down just enough so that passengers in the cabin float freely.

Parabolic arc, zero gravity trajectory, of an aircraft on a microgravity lab flight.
Parabolic arc, zero gravity trajectory, of an aircraft on a microgravity lab flight.

It’s not that they’re outside of gravity’s influence, rather, they are in freefall as their inertia keeps them moving along the initial 45° trajectory set in motion by the aircraft. Essentially, the free-floating passengers are on a ballistic trajectory (as are astronauts in orbit) and gravity is continuously pulling them and their craft back towards Earth. After 25 seconds the aircraft is pointing downward at a 45° angle, so the pilot must pull the nose up to avoid going into too of a steep a dive. The microgravity simulation is over and the passengers begin to feel gravity once again. When the plane pulls out of the 45° descent, the passengers feel more than just normal Earth gravity (1g): they experience up to 1.8g (1.8 times normal Earth gravity). NASA used this flying laboratory for decades to perform experiments in microgravity and train astronauts how to get around in “zero-G”. The ride became infamously known as the “vomit comet” for good reason.

Now, what were we talking about again? Oh yes, cats. Someone at NASA realized cats were very good at righting themselves in freefall without anything to push against. Simply by twisting their bodies like little furry gymnasts, they were able to reorient themselves relative to the ground and always landed on their feet. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to put kitties on the vomit comet to see what we could learn from them? Yes! Let’s do, they said, and made it so. The following documentary evidence of cats flying in simulated weightlessness, but never landing on their feet, incorrectly states “1947” right around the 2:30 mark. That should have been 1959, at the earliest, or sometime in the early 1960s… “Throwing Cats in Space” (6:19):

As you can see in the video, the cats on board the vomit comet suffered gravity disorientation, followed by a complete loss of feline gracefullness. Without being able to feel the pull of gravity, the kitties didn’t seem to know up from down. All the same, NASA did learn alot from cats in space, and instructed astronauts in the fine art of twisting their bodies and moving arms and legs to create equal and opposite reactions in order to orient themselves relative to what they wanted to face, just like the cool cats.

Question of the Night: Do you ever suffer from air sickness when you fly?

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About Richard Doud 622 Articles
Learning is a life-long endeavor. Never stop learning. No one is right all the time. No one is wrong all the time. No exceptions to these rules.