The Americans may have lost their dedicated ride to the International Space Station, but they haven't lost their spirit – Smokey Bear, who previously worked as chief mascot for the United States Forest Service, will soon begin his new job as mascot for the American crew heading into space on May 15.

NASA astronaut Joseph Acaba spoke to the Associated Press recently from Star City, Russia, the town outside of Moscow from which the international crew will launch themselves into space, and said that he hoped the selection of Smokey Bear as mascot will raise public awareness about the dangers posed by forest fires – dangers that presumably do not exist in space, where there isn't enough oxygen to feed a fire for very long.

Acaba added that Smokey Bear makes people aware of human-caused fires and how important the natural environment is, as the astronaut and his team prepared to burn hundreds of thousands of gallons of jet fuel to launch themselves into orbit using the artificial space vehicle.

Because the Space Shuttle Discovery has flown its last mission, American astronauts like Joseph Acaba must hitch rides with foreign launches – in this case, a Russian space shuttle – in a reversal from the Cold War norm of American-led missions. The space travelers will travel in the Soyuz spacecraft, which Acaba described as having a great history of being reliable.

Acaba and his Russian crewmates – Gennady Padalka and Sergei Revin, known as cosmonauts in Russia – plan to start their journey to the International Space Station on May 15, weather permitting, from the Russian cosmodrone in Baikonur, in the southern part of Kazakhstan. The cosmodrone was built by the Soviet Union, but is now owned by the government of Kazakhstan, who leases it to Russia for launches.)

But if all goes well, this may be one of the last Russian-led missions that Smokey Bear has to play mascot for. Despite the decline of federally-funded space programs, a number of private firms are vying to succeed NASA when it comes to launching spacecrafts. Space Exploration Technologies Corp., often known simply as SpaceX, is set to launch the first commercial craft to the ISS. The launch will take place next month, and the craft will be attached to the company's Falcon rocket, which will launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida.