Smokey the Bear is getting a new job -- in space

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An American astronaut heading to the International Space Station has chosen Smokey Bear as his crew's mascot.

NASA astronaut Joseph Acaba said Wednesday that he hopes Smokey, the mascot of the United States Forest Service, would help raise public awareness about the dangers posed by forest fires.

He added that Smokey "makes people aware of human-caused fires and how important the natural environment is."

Acaba and his Russian crewmates Gennady Padalka and Sergei Revin plan to blast off to the space station on May 15 from the Russian-leased Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The retirement of the U.S. shuttle fleet has left Russia's Soyuz spacecraft as the only means to deliver crews to the space outpost.


Acaba said the Soyuz spacecraft "has a great history of being reliable."

"Of course, the landing will be a little bit different than we used to on the Shuttle, but I think we are mentally prepared for that," Acaba told a news conference at the Star City cosmonaut training center outside Moscow before leaving for Baikonur.

Several private U.S. companies are competing for the right to carry astronauts into orbit.

One of them, Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, is on track to launch the first commercial ship to the International Space Station. The Dragon spacecraft is set to be launched next month atop the company's Falcon rocket from Cape Canaveral. It will carry nonessential cargo of clothing, food, computers and science equipment to the station.

The capsule is designed to return to Earth with a full load as well, something none of the other visiting cargo ships -- from Russia, Europe and Japan -- can do. NASA wants to save money by bringing back old equipment that can be refurbished and then launched back up into space.