Russian cosmonauts take Olympic torch into space

Reuters, BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan

Mon, Nov 11, 2013 - Page 6

A pair of Russian cosmonauts took an Olympic torch into open space for the first time on Saturday as part of the torch relay of the Sochi 2014 Winter Games.

Gripping the unlit silver-and-red torch in the gloved fist of his spacesuit, Oleg Kotov crawled through a hatch and stepped outside the International Space Station about 320km above Earth, where he waved it triumphantly.

He handed the torch to Sergei Ryazansky and they took turns posing with it in a zero-gravity film session with the station, the blackness of outer space and the blue-and-white orb of Earth as backdrops.

“That’s a beautiful view,” Ryazansky said.

The footage, most taken from cameras mounted on the cosmonauts’ spacesuit helmets, was broadcast live on the US space agency NASA’s Internet channel and Russian state television.

A three-man Russian, US and Japanese crew carried the torch up on a Soyuz rocket from the Baikonur launch facility in Kazakhstan on Thursday, bringing the number of crew aboard the station to nine.

The spacewalk is a showcase for the Sochi Games in February, the first Olympics that Russia will host since the Soviet era and a crucial event for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has been in power for nearly 14 years.

Inspired by the Firebird of Russian folklore, the meter-long torch weighs almost 2kg on Earth. Special tethers were attached to ensure it could not float away in the weightlessness of outer space.

The two cosmonauts occasionally let go of the torch, which spent more than an hour in open space before Ryazansky returned it to the station and they turned to other tasks.

The torch is to be returned to Earth today by Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin, US astronaut Karen Nyberg and Italian Luca Parmitano, of the European Space Agency, and handed off to Sochi 2014 officials.

It will be used to light the Olympic flame when the Games start on Feb. 7 next year.

Russia is conducting the longest torch relay before any Winter Olympics, a 65,000km trek that has taken the flame to the North Pole on an atomic-powered icebreaker and will bring it to Europe’s highest peak, Mount Elbrus.

“This is a way to show the world what Russia is made of,” Dmitry Kozak, the deputy prime minister in charge of planning the Olympics, said after the Baikonur launch.

He said it would display Russia’s “might” and its economic achievements.

Putin is taking a risk by staging the Games in Sochi, a beach and mountain resort where nearly all the venues had to be built from scratch.

He has faced criticism and calls to boycott the Games over a law he signed in June banning homosexual “propaganda” among minors, which critics say amounts to a ban on gay-rights rallies.

On the ground, the torch relay continued on Saturday in Siberia’s vast Yakutia region.

The flame has gone out dozens of times, prompting both humor and criticism from Russians.