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Olympic torch relay heads to International Space Station

Posted: October 31, 2013

While the Olympic torch relay courses through Russia ahead of the 2014 Sochi Winter Games in February, a veteran international crew from Russia, the United States and Japan will launch into space next week with an unlit replica for a ceremonial orbital handoff.

Koichi Wakata, Mikhail Tyurin and Rick Mastracchio hold a replica of the Olympic torch they will carry to space Nov. 7. Credit: NASA
Russia is sending the torch to the International Space Station as officials gear up for the Winter Olympics in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. The opening ceremony is set for Feb. 7.

The torch will hitch a ride to the space station Nov. 7 aboard the Soyuz TMA-11M spacecraft. The capsule and its three-man crew are preparing for launch at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

The Soyuz rocket's aerodynamic shroud, which encloses the spacecraft during launch, is emblazoned with the Sochi Olympics logo.

"It's a a great pleasure for us that we were the ones chosen to participate in it, and this is a great idea for the Olympic Games and the whole Olympic movement," said Mikhail Tyurin, the Russian commander of the Soyuz TMA-11M spacecraft. "We see a parallel between the Olympic movement and space exploration that involves everybody."

The torch will also take part in an abbreviated relay aboard the space station, with Tyurin scheduled to hand it off to cosmonauts Oleg Kotov and Sergei Ryazansky for a spacewalk on Nov. 9.

"Our goal here is to make it look spectacular, we would like to showcase our Olympic torch in space," Kotov said before his launch in September. "So we will try to do it in a beautiful manner, I think a lot of people, actually millions of people, will be able to see it live on TV. They will see the station, they will see how we work during our spacewalks. But of course, there will be a couple of surprises."

The torch will spend four days in orbit and return to Earth on Nov. 11 aboard another Soyuz spacecraft with Fyodor Yurchikhin, Karen Nyberg and Luca Parmitano, who are wrapping up five-and-a-half months on the orbiting complex.

"We will deliver the torch onto the ISS, and the crew will go outside for a spacewalk, and then the next crew will deliver it back on the ground, so we'll have our own relay in space," Tyurin said through a translator.

Wakata, Tyurin and Mastracchio pose at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in front of the Soyuz rocket's nose shroud adorned with the Sochi Olympics logo. Credit: NASA/Victor Zelentsov
Russia moved up the launch of Tyurin and his crewmates to accommodate the Olympic torch. With the arrival of the Soyuz TMA-11M crew, the space station's population will swell to nine, the most people to be aboard the outpost since the last space shuttle mission in July 2011.

Three Russian Soyuz capsules will also be docked to the station for the first time since 2009.

A departing space station crew typically leaves the lab complex before the launch of three fresh residents, briefly reducing the crew size to three. But the upcoming crew exchange is a "direct handover" in which the departing and arriving crews will be on the space station at the same time.

Tyurin is launching with NASA flight engineer Rick Mastracchio and Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata, who will take command of the space station's Expedition 39 crew in March.

"The fact that the Olympic torch going to fly to the space station is very symbolic because the Olympics are a place where people all over the world get together in one place, and through sports we expand or extend our friendship," Wakata said. "ISS also a place where people from all over the world get together in space and build an outstanding facility to expand our frontier in space."

Russian officials said the torch will be included in live television broadcasts from the space station during its four-day stay.

"Please understand there will be no open fire either on the station or in outer space," said Sergei Krikalev, a former cosmonaut and now an executive at RSC Energia, Russia's main space station contractor.

Krikalev said engineers made minor modifications to the torch, such as adding a safety bracket to keep the torch tethered to the cosmonauts during the spacewalk.

"It is kind of hard to hold the torch in a spacesuit glove," Krikalev said. "That's why there is a safety ring just in case the EVA crew member drops the torch. Sometimes they will need to hold on to the safety railings and not hold on to the torch itself."

The torch for the Sochi Olympics will the first to go on a spacewalk, but it is not the first Olympic torch to fly in space.

Torches for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and the 2000 Sydney Olympics flew on space shuttle missions.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.