You might have seen the picture circulating of Baby Yoda in the crew dragon capsule.
So, what was he doing there? It’s all part of a tradition that goes back to the very first space launch.
Gagarin and Zero-G Indicators
In 1961, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human being in space. He took with him a small doll, secured in the cabin, “to watch it float.”
This started the tradition of the “zero-g indicator,” which confirms that a craft is in microgravity (zero-g is a misnomer but tradition requires it be used in this case).
The ostensible purpose is to make sure astronauts know that they really are in free fall before unstrapping, but I suspect personally that it’s as much a sailor’s talisman as anything else.
Zero-g indicators can be anything, but plush toys have become popular because they’re, well, not going to damage anything floating around the cabin.
How are they Chosen?
Traditionally, the primary zero-g indicator is chosen by the mission commander. Sometimes, other crewmembers might bring their own.
The object can be anything of suitable size and shape, and sometimes indicates the historical significance of the mission. For example, one crew celebrated the 55th anniversary of Vostok 1 by using a toy rocket with a commemorative medallion attached.
Other choices have included toys belonging to the commanders’ children. Until recently, however, the tradition has been fairly quiet, kept amongst astronauts and space workers.
So, why are they famous now? It’s all SpaceX’s fault. Well, that and we have lots more cameras on space launches now.
The first zero-g indicator to become famous was…the little Earth. The plushie, made by a company called Celestial Buddies that specializes in astronomical toys, flew into orbit on Crew Dragon Demo-1…
…despite there being no humans on board. Perhaps indicating how important the tradition had become, the Earth plushie accompanied Ripley, the astronaut dummy used to test the Crew Dragon capsule, in spring 2019.
Elon Musk tweeted about the “super high-tech zero-g indicator.” Sales of the toy exploded.
During the first crewed Dragon launch, the zero-g indicator was a pretty plush dinosaur.
And during the latest, Baby Yoda got to ride along.
But this has been going on since humans went into space and to be honest it may well link back to much older traditions.
Perhaps the zero-g indicator is helpful to astronauts at a practical level. But they are also sailors’ talismans for our launch into the deepest and darkest ocean of all.