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SpaceX Crew-4 astronauts fly plush turtle and monkey as zero-g indicators

SpaceX Crew-4 pilot Bob Hines and mission specialist Samantha Cristoforetti let their daughters select their zero-g indicators, a plush turtle named Zippy and small monkey named Etta.
SpaceX Crew-4 pilot Bob Hines and mission specialist Samantha Cristoforetti let their daughters select their zero-g indicators, a plush turtle named Zippy and small monkey named Etta. (Image credit: NASA TV)

What do you get when you cross a turtle with a chimp and send both into outer space? A whole lot of shenanigans.

Or at least that is the story behind the plush turtle and small monkey that launched with SpaceX's Crew-4 astronauts (opens in new tab) on Wednesday (April 27). Both dolls began to float when the Dragon spacecraft "Freedom" (opens in new tab) entered orbit, about nine minutes after leaving Earth and 16 hours before arriving at the International Space Station.

"One of the questions we often get asked about is the significance of our zero-g indicator (opens in new tab). It may look like we have two, but rest assured we have one," said NASA astronaut Bob Hines, Crew-4 pilot, during a live broadcast from Freedom a few hours before docking.

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The Crew-4 zero-g indicators were first seen floating soon after the Dragon spacecraft Freedom entered Earth orbit.

The Crew-4 zero-g indicators were first seen floating soon after the Dragon spacecraft Freedom entered Earth orbit. (Image credit: NASA TV)

As Hines explained, the dolls were chosen by his daughter and the daughter of one of his crewmates, mission specialist Samantha Cristoforetti with the European Space Agency (ESA).

"My daughter chose 'Zippy' the turtle," said Hines, referring to the youngest of his three daughters, Julia. "It's one of her favorite and oldest stuffed animals. So we brought Zippy along for the ride,"

"And this is 'Etta,'" said Cristoforetti, introducing the little monkey or "la scimmietta" in Italian. "Etta is the way my older daughter Kelsey used to call her [the doll] because she is Italian, she would be a small monkey, but when she was small she could only say 'Etta' and so that is what we call her."

Etta was the first doll that Cristoforetti bought for her daughter, even before Kelsey was even born.

"So I was excited that she chose Etta to fly to space with us," Cristoforetti said.

Beyond their personal stories, the toys also have a second meaning for the crew.

"[Crew-4 mission specialist Jessica Watkins] and I were in the 2017 astronaut class, and every class has a nickname (opens in new tab), and we were known as 'The Turtles," (opens in new tab) said Hines. "So obviously Zippy is very near and dear to our heart as a turtle."

"Kjell's class from 2009 are known as 'The Chumps,' or 'The Chimps,' which is obviously a monkey," Hines said, referring to Crew-4 commander Kjell Lindgren's connection to Etta.

"And then Samantha's class from the European Space Agency, they were known as 'The Shenanigans.' And, as everybody knows, when you get a turtle and a monkey together, that is a shenanigan," said Hines. "So that is our single zero-g indicator that we have for our mission."

The two-in-one approach was a new one for zero-g indicators flown on SpaceX missions to the space station, though it has been seen before where the tradition began — in Russia. The custom can be traced back to the first human spaceflight when Soviet-era cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin took a doll with him on Vostok I in 1961.

Since then, many Russian crew members (and later, their American and European crewmates) chose stuffed animals and other toys to suspend in their spacecraft.

Zippy the turtle is the second turtle doll and second Ty product to fly as a zero-g indicator on a SpaceX Dragon mission.

Zippy the turtle is the second turtle doll and second Ty product to fly as a zero-g indicator on a SpaceX Dragon mission. (Image credit: Ty)

Past zero-g indicators on SpaceX flights have included a plush planet Earth (opens in new tab), a sequined dinosaur (opens in new tab), Star Wars' "Grogu" (or "baby Yoda (opens in new tab)"), a penguin (opens in new tab) and two plush dogs (opens in new tab) that doubled as fundraisers (opens in new tab) for children's hospitals.

"Zippy," as it happens, is the second turtle to fly. The Crew-3 astronauts, who Crew-4 are replacing on the space station, chose a sequined sea turtle (opens in new tab), which like Zippy, was a reference to "The Turtles" astronaut class.

Zippy is also the second SpaceX-flown zero-g indicator to be made by Ty, the toy company of Beanie Babies fame. Part of Ty's Beanie Boos line of dolls, Zippy was first produced in 2013. (The first zero-g indicator made by Ty was "Tremor," the Apatosaurus.)

The make or manufacturer of Cristoforetti's "Etta" monkey was not identified.

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Robert Pearlman is a space historian, journalist and the founder and editor of collectSPACE.com, an online publication and community devoted to space history with a particular focus on how and where space exploration intersects with pop culture. Pearlman is also a contributing writer for Space.com and co-author of "Space Stations: The Art, Science, and Reality of Working in Space” published by Smithsonian Books in 2018. He previously developed online content for the National Space Society and Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, helped establish the space tourism company Space Adventures and currently serves on the History Committee of the American Astronautical Society, the advisory committee for The Mars Generation and leadership board of For All Moonkind. In 2009, he was inducted into the U.S. Space Camp Hall of Fame in Huntsville, Alabama. In 2021, he was honored by the American Astronautical Society with the Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History.