Space Station astronauts honor Peter Mayhew, best known for playing 'Star Wars' Chewbacca

Cydney Henderson

NASA astronauts on the International Space Station are honoring actor Peter Mayhew, the legendary actor best known for playing Chewbacca in the "Star Wars" films.

On Wednesday, astronaut Nick Hague tweeted a photo of Mayhew, who died April 30, with Earth in the background. "Honoring Peter Mayhew (also known as Chewbacca) up here on @Space_Station," Hague wrote. " Thank you Peter for inspiring generations of explorers."

Mayhew's "Star Wars" co-star Mark Hamill re-tweeted the pic with his own tribute: "To infinity and beyond, my friend. No one's ever really gone when they're in our hearts forever."

Mayhew's family announced on Twitter May 2 that the London-born actor, "left us the evening of April 30, 2019 with his family by his side in his North Texas home." No cause was given. 

Lucasfilm also confirmed Mayhew's death to USA TODAY.

"He put his heart and soul into the role of Chewbacca," his family wrote. "It showed in every frame of the films from his knock kneed running, firing his bowcaster from the hip, his bright blue eyes, down to each subtle movement of his head and mouth."

Actor Peter Mayhew, best known for playing Chewbacca in the "Star Wars" films, has died at 74.

The 7-foot-3 Mayhew played the iconic Wookiee in five "Star Wars" films, including the original trilogy and most recently in 2015's "Star Wars: The Force Awakens."

"He fought his way back from being wheelchair-bound to stand tall and portray Chewbacca once more in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," the family's statement continued. "He also consulted on ("Star Wars: The Last Jedi") in an attempt to teach his successor."

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"To him, the Star Wars family meant so much more to him than a role in a film," his family said. 

Mayhew's death comes just days before Star Wars Day on May 4. 

In a statement, "Star Wars" creator George Lucas called Mayhew "a wonderful man.  He was the closest any human being could be to a Wookiee: big heart, gentle nature … and I learned to always let him win. He was a good friend and I’m saddened by his passing.”

Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy added that she, too, was "deeply saddened" by Mayhew's death.

In a statement, she said, "Since 1976, Peter’s iconic portrayal of the loyal, lovable Chewbacca has been absolutely integral to the character’s success, and to the 'Star Wars' saga itself. When I first met Peter during 'The Force Awakens,' I was immediately impressed by his kind and gentle nature. Peter was brilliantly able to express his personality through his skillful use of gesture, posture, and eyes. We all love Chewie, and have Peter to thank for that enduring memory.”     

"The Force Awakens" director J.J. Abrams tweeted a remembrance of Mayhew as "the loveliest man ... kind and patient, supportive and encouraging. A sweetheart to work with and already deeply missed."

Harrison Ford, whose Han Solo shared the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon with Mayhew's Chewie in the original "Star Wars" trilogy, remembered his co-star in a statement as "a kind and gentle man, possessed of great dignity and noble character. These aspects of his own personality, plus his wit and grace, he brought to Chewbacca. We were partners in film and friends in life for over 30 years and I loved him. He invested his soul in the character and brought great pleasure to the 'Star Wars' audience."

Ford also noted how integral Mayhew's Wookiee was to the success of the early "Star Wars" films: "He knew how important the fans of the franchise were to its continued success and he was devoted to them. I and millions of others will never forget Peter and what he gave us all."

Fellow original "Star Wars" star Mark Hamill paid tribute to Mayhew on Twitter Thursday, calling him "the gentlest of giants" and "a big man with an even bigger heart who never failed to make me smile and a loyal friend who I loved dearly. I'm grateful for the memories we shared and I'm a better man for just having known him."

Billy Dee Williams, who co-starred alongside Mayhew in "Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi," tweeted that he was "much more than Chewie to me... .... My heart hurts....I will miss you my dear friend."

Mayhew acted as a key mentor to Finnish actor Joonas Suotamo, who appeared in a few "Force Awakens" scenes as the furry hero. Mayhew couldn’t walk well on the set because he was still recovering from a pair of knee replacements, and Suotamo took over the Chewie mantle permanently in 2017's "The Last Jedi."

Suotamo told USA TODAY in 2017 that Mayhew joked he was "too skinny" to be a Wookiee. "Peter's always been very dear to the fans and he talked about the mind-set of Chewie, how he's loyal to his pilot - things that might be obvious to someone but they require underlining," Suotamo recalled. "It was definitely important that I heard it from Peter. Then I was able to see the priority of keeping Chewie as he is."

On Twitter, Suotamo shared his thoughts of Mayhew as "a legend of unrivaled class" and a one-of-a kind gentleman: "Rest assured his legacy will live on and the spirit that he gave (Chewbacca) when he first donned the suit will never be forgotten."

His height, the result of a genetic disorder known as Marfan syndrome, was the source of constant health complications late in his life. He had respiratory problems, his speech grew limited and he often had to use scooters and wheelchairs instead of walking.

In June 2018, Mayhew announced on Twitter that he underwent spinal surgery to improve his mobility. "It’s been a success & I’ll be spending the upcoming weeks recovering. A big thank you to the doctors, staff, my family & friends that have helped me through this," he wrote. 

Born and raised in England, Mayhew had appeared in just one film and was working as a hospital orderly in London when Lucas found him and cast him in 1977's "Star Wars."

Mayhew is the third major member of the original cast to die in recent years. Carrie Fisher and R2-D2 actor Kenny Baker died in 2016.

He is survived by his wife, Angie, and three children. A private service will be held June 29, followed by a public memorial in early December at a Los Angeles "Star Wars" convention.

Contributing: Brian Truitt, The Associated Press 

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Space Station astronauts honor Peter Mayhew, best known for playing 'Star Wars' Chewbacca