Best gifts for mom 2019: Disney+ (Photo: LUCASFILM)

Astronauts call the objects they carry with them to float around the space station in microgravity “zero-G indicators.” 

The rest of us call them toys. 

According to the blog Collect Space, the tradition goes all the way back to the first launch of a human into space in 1961. Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin took a small doll with him to watch it float. Ever since then a variety of  “zero-G indicators” have hitched a ride to space from baseballs to Buzz Lightyear. 

Also known as “mascots,” the most famous is probably Snoopy who has a long relationship with NASA dating back to the Apollo missions. Artist Charles Schulz created comics with Snoopy on the moon to help inspire excitement about America’s new space program. The Apollo 10 command module was named Charlie Brown and the lunar module was named Snoopy. But the actual character Snoopy didn’t fly to space until 1990, when he caught a ride on the space shuttle Columbia. 

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STS-32 Crew with Snoopy (Photo: NASA)

In spite of their technical sounding name, there’s really no scientific purpose for them but they sure seem to make people happy.

Here’s five favorites from recent history:

1. Baby Yoda

In the Disney+ episode of “Mandalorian” that streamed before the Crew-1 launch, Mando’s spacecraft is badly damaged and barely held together offering a bumpy and treacherous ride for him and Baby Yoda. Seems fitting that only a couple days later Baby Yoda jumped at a chance to fly on a SpaceX Falcon 9 instead. 

Baby Yoda was the latest zero-G indicator to fly to space with four astronauts aboard SpaceX’s first operational mission to the International Space Station. Turns out the crew had begun watching the streaming series together. 

Commander Mike Hopkins explained that the crew’s choice to bring Baby Yoda aboard Crew Dragon tied in with the naming their spacecraft Resilience.

“Throughout the pandemic and all of that, we were inspired by everybody’s effort so that’s why we named it Resilience. We hope that it puts a smile on people’s faces, brings hope to them and so Baby Yoda does the same thing. I think everybody when you see him it’s hard not to smile and so it just seemed appropriate.”

2. Velcro chess board

The massive popularity of “The Queen’s Gambit” on Netflix has resulted in renewed interest in the game of chess. In fact, according to a Netflix executive Google queries for chess have doubled. 

Probably the last time chess was this prominent was in 2008 when NASA astronaut Greg Chamitoff played a cosmic game of chess with an elementary school chess team from Bellevue, Washington. 

No poker face was required for this match. According to NASA, a move was played about once every two days with the students using an online system to let players vote for a move. Ultimately the astronaut was no match for the kids. Chamitoff resigned after the chess team turned one of their pawns into a queen.

3. Buzz Lightyear

Toy Story’s Buzz Lightyear had a motto that he lived by “To infinity… and beyond!” He dreamed of going to space and in 2008 he finally did aboard the Discovery space shuttle. 

Buzz Lightyear poses with space shuttle Discovery (Photo: NASA / Tony Landis)

According to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, the actual toy that flew in space belonged to the son of the Disney team member who arranged the collaboration with NASA. When his father, Ducan Wardle, couldn’t locate a Buzz Lightyear in time to ship it to NASA, he found one under his son’s bed and sent it. 

The fictional space ranger spent 15 months on the International Space Station. Upon his return, he and his crewmates as well as Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin were celebrated in a ticker-tape parade at Disney World in Orlando. 

After all that adventure, Lightyear settled down at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum where he is on display. 

Disney’s space ranger Buzz Lightyear returned from space on Sept. 11, 2009 aboard Space Shuttle Discovery’s STS-128 mission after 15 months aboard the International Space Station. (Photo: NASA / Tony Landis)

4. Smokey the bear

In 2012, NASA astronaut Joe Acaba was inspired to take fire prevention figure Smokey the Bear to the International Space Station as the zero-G indicator and to draw attention to the cause of preventing forest fires. 

As a native Californian, Acaba was was an avid supporter of national forests and public lands. Smokey flew with Acaba and the rest of the crew aboard a Russian Soyzuz spacecraft where Smokey was stowed in a porthole. 

At the time NASA stated, “As a recognized symbol for wildland fire prevention, his presence on the orbiting complex also highlights the many areas of active space station research related to Earth observations, plant growth and combustion and materials sciences, as well as existing spinoff technologies in these areas.”

Considering 2020 was the worst fire season on record in California, Smokey may need to make a return appearance in space to bring attention to his important mission. 

5. Dinosaurs

The Hurley / Nyberg household has a thing for dinosaurs.

In 2013, NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg (who is married to NASA astronaut Doug Hurley) made a stuffed dinosaur while on the International Space Station. She used scraps of food-packaging liners and a T-shirt to make the homemade dino for her son, Jack. This is the only zero-G indicator on the list that didn’t launch from Earth but was made in space. 

Seven years later her husband Hurley kicked it up a notch by taking a bedazzled dino named Tremor on SpaceX’s historic first crewed launch. His crewmate Bob Behnken explained that their respective sons actually chose the zero-G indicator this time. 

“We both have two boys who are super interested in dinosaurs,” said Behnken. “We collected up all the dinosaurs between our two houses and ‘Tremor,’ the Apatosaurus, got the vote from the boys to make the trip into space today with us.”

The long-necked 50,000 lb. dinosaur roamed the Earth 150 million years ago during the late Jurassic. In 2020, the sequined, three-ounce version left Earth aboard a Dragon and floated through space. 

Contact Rachael Joy at 321-242-3577. Follow her on Twitter @Rachael_Joy.

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