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Smokey and fire: Trio launch to space with US forest service icon

Circled in red, the Smokey Bear talisman and "zero-g indicator" is seen near Joe Acaba on board Soyuz TMA-04M. (NASA TV)
May 14, 2012

— A former American school teacher, a veteran Russian space station commander, and a rookie Russian cosmonaut launched to the International Space Station on Monday evening (May 14) and are now on their way to joining the orbiting complex's 31st expedition crew.

NASA astronaut Joe Acaba and Roscosmos cosmonauts Gennady Padalka and Sergei Revin lifted off on Russia's Soyuz TMA-04M at 11:01 p.m. EDT (0301 GMT/9:01 a.m. local time on May 15) from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The latest crew to depart for the station, their launch begins their scheduled four-month stay in space.

The trio's ascent atop of a pillar of smoke and fire was not without a touch of irony though, as flying with them was a mascot known for promoting the dangers of human-started fires.

Soyuz TMA-04M launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome for the International Space Station, May 14, 2012. (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Flying — and floating — above the crewmates' heads was a small toy doll, continuing a Russian custom for the crew to select a talisman and "zero-g indicator" to hang from the spacecraft's control panel. The toy began to float once they reached orbit, providing a visual clue that they were weightless and safely in space.

Traditionally, the spacecraft commander provides the doll, often chosen by a child, but for this flight, the honor was turned over to the American aboard.

"Gennady's been very gracious and offered us new fliers the opportunity to fly the talisman," Acaba said. A veteran of a 2009 space shuttle mission to the space station, this was Acaba's first launch on a Russian rocket and his first time serving as a station flight engineer.

Acaba's choice of mascot — Smokey (the) Bear — drew questions in Russia but was very recognizable back in the United States.

Smokey goes to space

The small brown bear doll with Smokey's iconic campaign hat and blue jeans was presented to Acaba by a friend.

"It was a gift that was given to me by a friend of mine who works for the U.S. Forest Service," Acaba said during a pre-flight press conference. An avid outdoorsman, Acaba holds degrees in geology and served as an environmental education awareness promoter while in the Peace Corps.

"Smokey is a very famous icon in the United States," he said in a reply to a Russian journalist, who asked about the meaning behind Smokey. "He's been around since the 1940s and tries to remind us about what the problems are when you have human-caused fires and tries to remind us to protect the environment as well as we can."

Photographed through glass, Soyuz TMA-04M flight engineer Joe Acaba at a pre-launch press conference. (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Smokey is the center of the longest running public service campaign in U.S. history, according to a spokesperson for the Ad Council, which created the character in 1944 for the U.S. Forest Service.

Smokey is perhaps best known for his catchphrase, "Only you can prevent wildfires."

"Smokey's message is as relevant today as it was in 1944 and we're continuing to work with the U.S. Forest Service to identify innovative and engaging ways to help all Americans understand their role in wildfire prevention," the Ad Council's vice president for public relations and social media Ellyn Fisher told collectSPACE. "A partnership with NASA to get Smokey to outer space continues to elevate the conversation and we are thrilled."

According to Fisher, this is the first time Smokey the Bear has flown in space, although a patch featuring the mascot was lofted with a weather balloon payload to 100,000 feet (30,480 meters) in May 2011.

Although Smokey Bear is an American character, Acaba's Russian commander agreed with the selection.

"I supported Joe in this decision," Padalka said.

Presents and counted for

According to Fisher, Smokey will celebrate his birthday in space. The Forest Service mascot will turn 68 on Aug. 9.

The bear is not the only crew member though, celebrating his birthday while in orbit.

Acaba will turn 45 on Thursday (May 17), on the same day he and his two Soyuz TMA-04M crewmates will dock their spacecraft and come aboard the space station. The link up is targeted for 12:38 a.m. EDT (0438 GMT).

A month later, the Expedition 31 crew will celebrate double birthdays. Both Padalka and commander Oleg Kononenko were born on June 21, in 1958 and 1964 respectively.

Soyuz TMA-04M crew members pre-launch, from the top, Sergei Revin, Joe Acaba and Gennady Padalka. (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Revin, as the only TMA-04M crew member whose birthday preceded their launch (it was in January), packed presents for his colleagues.

"it was my duty to bring some birthday gifts for them," he said. "I hope to make a pleasant surprise. I hope they will find these presents useful during their flight. I also hope these presents of mine will lift their spirits a bit."

"You'll find out what kind of birthday gifts I am carrying via [Mission Control] MCC-Moscow — they'll report about that — when the dates come," Revin added.

As for himself, Revin chose to bring a small but symbolic stuffed doll.

"I know my comrades take small souvenirs with them and I'm taking a small kangaroo," the first time flier said. "We all know that kangaroos hop, they jump, they leap forward, [and] so this is kind of a leap forward for me."

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Soyuz TMA-04M launches to space station

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