Daniel Lakey was in the middle of an important meeting when an unauthorized participant decided to chime in.
“He appeared at the door, jumped on the table, meowed in my face, walked across the keyboard, put his furry ass in my face, and eventually curled up sweetly on the desk next to the laptop,” Lakey recounted to me recently.
It was Sparkle, Lakey’s fluffy brown-and-white cat. Sparkle stuck around for the rest of the virtual meeting, in fact, mewing every time Lakey stopped petting him.
Like many people in the pandemic era, Lakey is doing his job from home, with a new set of colleagues who might be less cooperative than his usual ones; his new workspace is now wherever his two young kids and two cats aren’t. Lakey is a spacecraft-operations engineer who works on the European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter, which means that he spends his days managing a spacecraft flying millions of miles away from Earth. The work is complex and precise, and usually doesn’t involve feline input. Sparkle interrupted a teleconference only that one time, but what else could he do?
That thought recently became a point of public discussion when Amber Straughn, an astrophysicist at NASA, tweeted: “Actually discussed in a virtual meeting today: how to keep cats from accidentally commanding spacecraft while this work is going on in people's homes on laptops instead of inside a cat-free NASA building.” The tweet garnered quite a bit of attention, and NASA was swarmed with questions from reporters asking whether cats could, in fact, inadvertently take control of spacecraft.