When Luca Parmitano took over command of the International Space Station recently, he became responsible for a crew that was both larger and smaller than normal.
Parmitano, the first Italian to lead the space station, is now sharing space aboard the orbiting lab with the usual contingent of five other normal size crew members — three U.S. astronauts and two Russian cosmonauts. But added to them are two diminutive doppelgängers — two Playmobil figures that were made in his likeness.
"I am here to introduce to you a special friend of mine, a special crew member that will help us with the operation aboard," said Parmitano, Expedition 61 commander, in a video released online by the European Space Agency (ESA). "And here is my friend, Astronaut Playmobil. You think he looks like me?"
The product of a partnership between ESA, the Italian Space Agency (ASI) and the Italian publisher of Playmobil Magazine, the 3-inch-tall (7.5-centimeter) figures were created to honor Parmitano and to promote an interest in spaceflight among children.
"It is another way to involve younger generations," Parmitano told collectSPACE.com in an interview before he launched to space in July. "Kids like toys, and toys, they can be educational. It is a great way to learn. A toy that is very popular can inspire kids to look towards the sky and see there is a space station."
Each of the Parmitano Playmobil figures is dressed in a white spacesuit adorned with ASI and ESA agency logos and the flag of Italy. The toy is also wearing a communications carrier, also known as a "snoopy cap," that is similar in style to the headset-supporting head covering that the real astronaut will wear on a series of spacewalks beginning in late October.
The two figures aboard the station are part of a limited edition of 25,000 that are now on newsstands in Italy, packaged with an issue of Playmobil Magazine. The two figures in space arrived with the cargo delivered by Northrop Grumman's 11th Cygnus spacecraft in April.
"These are the first Playmobil figures ever launched into space," said Andrea Galmozzi, marketing coordinator for Playmobil Italy. "We are both proud and thrilled about it and can't wait to see our little astronauts on board the ISS and floating in microgravity with the world's most qualified astronauts."
"We always tell children that imagination has no limits, and we hope this project can further reinforce this message," Galmozzi told collectSPACE.
The figures on sale in Italy each come with a magazine featuring space-themed comics, articles and games and a special booklet developed with ASI explaining Parmitano's "Beyond" ESA mission aboard the space station.
"The idea is to use the Playmobil figures to raise awareness about the vital work that is performed by the European Space Agency astronauts on the International Space Station. The opportunities to use the figures to illustrate what life on board the ISS is like are very broad," said Galmozzi.
"They will include a little booklet that tells what we do, the fact that being an astronaut includes being a scientist, being a pilot, being an engineer, being a cook and fixing toilets," Parmitano told collectSPACE. "All of these are important to give them something to think about. They are young and they are curious and a toy is a great way of communicating."
As for the pair of figures on the space station, they are destined to stay in orbit "for all future visitors of humankind's outpost to play with, to inspire and use to educate children about life in space," Parmitano said.
But they might also undergo a few changes to better reflect their inspiration.
"I think I am going to have to put on a goatee and shave his head for him to look like me, but that is the plan. They just don't know it yet," joked Parmitano.
Click through to collectSPACE to watch Luca Parmitano introduce Astronaut Playmobil.
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