The astronaut in question is Alexei Ovchinin. His daughter gave him the little pink stuffed owl as a gift before him going on the ISS. But as with everything that goes in space, the stuffed owl served a scientific purpose, too.
The crewmembers, including Ovchinin and his two colleagues cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka, and NASA’s Jeff Williams, used the cute stuffie to check when they will become weightless. When the owl started floating, they knew they were also weightless, despite being strapped tightly into their Soyuz seats.
“The tradition of carrying small toys as weightless indicators dates back to the very first time a human was launched into space 55 years ago next month,” Robert Pearlman, a space historian and the editor of collectSPACE.com, told Mashable.
“Yuri Gagarin launched on Vostok 1 with a small doll and a tradition was born.”
A plush R2-D2 was used as the talisman on a Soyuz mission in 2015.
And a 2014 crew used a stuffed snowman Olaf from the movie Frozen as their gravity talisman. “My youngest daughter is 8 years old and she selected that as a talisman,” cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov said during a pre-launch news conference.
The snowman belongs to Gennady Padalka, the commander of the Soyuz that brought the three crewmembers to space. “I do have a lucky charm,” Padalka said before launch. “It’s a snowman. I’ve taken it with me on my last three flights. My youngest daughter gave it to me, so I’ll take it along this time as well.” You can see the pattern here.
“Over the years, the cosmonauts added to the tradition by having their children, or their crewmates’ children, select the doll for the flight,” Pearlman added. “That has led to some interesting and popular choices, including Frozen’s Olaf snowman, a red Angry Bird and small hippopotamus wearing a cosmonaut flight suit — complete with a miniature version of the crew’s mission patch.”
NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg also sewed a stuffed dinosaur for her son made from scraps of material found on the Space Station during her stay in 2013.
— Intl. Space Station (@Space_Station) March 18, 2016