Olympics: Russians to take Olympic torch on historic spacewalk

AFP, Saturday 9 Nov 2013

The Sochi Winter Games is due to start in Russia next February

File photo: Greek actress Ino Menegaki, playing the role of high priestess, raises an Olympic torch of the Sochi 2014 Winter Games during a handover ceremony at the Panathenean stadium in Athens October 5, 2013 (Photo: Reuters)

Two cosmonauts will on Saturday take the Olympic torch for an historic spacewalk aimed at showcasing Moscow's prowess in science and sport.

Russia has spared no expense in promoting the upcoming Winter Games in Sochi, its first Olympic event since the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow were boycotted by a bloc of Western nations because of the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan.

The feather-shaped silver and red symbol of peace and friendship has already been sent to the North Pole aboard a Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker and is still set to visit the bottom of Baikal -- the world's deepest freshwater lake.

All are not-so-subtle reminders from President Vladimir Putin's government about the breadth of both Russia's ambitions and its natural wealth.

But little compares to the pride Russia has taken in shooting the torch up to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard the same type of rocket the Soviets used for launching pioneering spaceman Yuri Gagarin in 1961.

"Taking the Olympic torch to space -- only we are capable of that," a presenter on Russian state television boasted on Thursday during a live account of the torch's voyage to the ISS.

The bold claim is not actually true. The torch also visited the ISS ahead of the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta and the 2000 event in Sydney.

But never has it been taken out for a spacewalk.

Cosmonauts Oleg Kotov and Sergei Ryazansky will do just that when they clamber out of the ISS with the torch tethered to one of their bulky spacesuits at 1436 GMT.

Russian space officials have stressed that safety precautions will keep the torch from being lit inside the ISS. Flames outside the station are impossible because of the lack of oxygen.

Russia had originally contemplated the idea of sending the actual flame up to the International Space Station by encasing it in a special lantern.

Vitaly Davydov of Russia's Roscosmos space agency set the debate rolling by remarking in 2011 that sending the flame up to the ISS "is not a bad idea (that) is theoretically possible."

More senior Russian officials eventually decided that lighting a fire board a Soyuz rocket filled with tonnes of explosive fuel was not a wise choice.

Internationally-agreed rules governing the ISS itself also forbid flames from being lit aboard the orbiting lab because they would burn up the limited supplies of oxygen needed by the crew.

But the spacewalk with the unlit version of the torch will receive extra promotion by being aired live at New York's Times Square.

Kotov and Ryazansky explained before blasting off to the ISS on September 26 that the torch will spend a total of five hours in open space.

The cosmonauts will spend the first hour of that time taking pictures and videos of each other holding the Olympic symbol before setting off to do some maintenance and other work on the 15-year-old orbiter.

"I will climb out first with a video camera in my hand and other photo equipment," said Ryazansky.

"Then Oleg will climb out with the torch, and I will be the one taping it. Then we will switch -- if he lets me hold the torch," Ryazansky joked.

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