One Thing Space Agencies Must Watch Out for Now: Cats

Operating a mission is a labyrinthian process from start to finish, with all kinds of checks and fail-safes along the way.

Arsh Raziuddin / Vishakha Dharba / The Atlantic

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.

Straughn’s team was only kidding, she later told me. As absurd as the scenario might seem, it would be nearly impossible for a cat to briefly become a spacecraft-operations engineer, whether at NASA or ESA.

I reached out to people working on an assortment of space missions, ranging from Mars missions to space telescopes, and they said pretty much the same thing: Commanding spacecraft is a labyrinthian process from start to finish, with all kinds of checks and fail-safes along the way. And these days, even with the majority of staffers at NASA and ESA working remotely, a few people are still allowed to go into the office, where they follow the usual social-distancing measures. Only there, in highly secure mission-control rooms, can someone actually hit Send on a polished series of commands to a far-flung spacecraft.

Even if a cat did manage to break into one of these rooms, it’s unlikely that it could cause much damage. “Some of those commands require a mouse”—the computer kind—“clicking on certain options, so it’s not just an issue of commands being written and sent up with typos,” said Andrew Good, a spokesperson for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, when I asked him whether any of the engineers working on the Curiosity rover, some of whom have cats, had any concerns. “A person has to make conscious choices for spacecraft commands to go up.”

Lakey biked to ESA’s mission control earlier this week to send some instructions to the Solar Orbiter. It was a nerve-racking exercise—Lakey had the spacecraft simulate a failure and then react to it—but it would have certainly been more so with his cats weaving around his ankles. “I would not let them in the control room, that’s for sure,” he said.

Sparkle, at work (Courtesy of Daniel Lakey)

Still, cats can wreak a little bit of havoc on space missions from home. Although engineers can’t control spacecraft off-site, they can do everything else: write and prepare commands, assess the performance of spacecraft and their scientific instruments, and investigate any anomalies. Buttons, Lakey’s other cat, contributes in his own way. “When I’m trying to prepare commands, I get nonsense written on there and I have to delete it and start again,” Lakey said. When Buttons isn’t inserting typos, he’s inadvertently pressing Delete, erasing important work.

Sure, there could be other culprits—tail-wagging dogs, rambunctious toddlers, well-meaning significant others. But cats pose a distinct hazard, as anyone who has watched their cat drink from an unguarded glass of water can attest. A cat is more likely to stroll across your keyboard, unfazed by an attempt to move him away just seconds ago, and look you in the eye as he does it.

But Lakey and other spacecraft engineers said too many system checks are in place to let typos or other errors pass unnoticed, regardless of the species that caused them.

“A pet could certainly cause some inconvenience in undoing whatever it was [engineers] did, but there are enough passwords, backups, and other safeguards in place that a would-be feline mission director couldn't cause any more than short-term inconvenience,” says Nick Estes, a systems and software engineer at Arizona State University who manages the cameras on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been orbiting around the moon since 2009. “Our staff is also very good about locking the screen when stepping away from the keyboard, which is probably the best defense.”

Estes says that most of the operators on his team are dog people, and he’s prepared to meet the demands of any unusual work environments during the pandemic. “If anyone came to me asking to borrow an extra keyboard for their cat to sit on while they work, I'm sure we could accommodate the request.”

Although cats can’t actually contribute to space missions, they’re unlikely to stop trying, however, and cat owners might be encouraging them without realizing it. “Cats have figured out that when they’re on the keyboard, their people are going to give them some attention,” says Marilyn Krieger, a certified cat-behavior consultant and the author of Naughty No More: Change Unwanted Behaviors Through Positive Reinforcement. When our feline companions get between us and our laptops, we usually interact with them, often with a few pets, which reinforces the behavior. Krieger recommends creating a space right next to the computer for cats to lounge, whether it’s a lap or a decoy keyboard. Lakey’s teleconference skritches are only making Sparkle bolder.

Lakey’s mission, the Solar Orbiter, launched in February and is still on its way to the sun. It briefly shut down its science instruments last month after someone on the mission-control team came down with COVID-19 and employees went into quarantine while ESA cleaned and disinfected buildings; no one else got sick, and the infected employee recovered. Engineers will spend the coming weeks checking the spacecraft and its instruments before the mission can begin its observations in earnest. After a couple of gravity assists from Earth and Venus, the spacecraft will eventually settle into an orbit around the sun, investigating its fiery properties, which remain a mystery to us in many ways. Back home, Sparkle will follow the mission on his own terms, meowing at the computer screen. “He likes to help,” Lakey said.