International space crew return Olympic torch to Earth
By Shamil Zhumatov
NEAR ZHEZKAZGAN, Kazakhstan (Reuters) - A Russian spacecraft brought three astronauts and the Olympic torch back to Earth on Monday after the torch was taken on its first spacewalk in the run-up to the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi.
Russia's Fyodor Yurchikhin beamed as he held up the silver-and-grey torch alongside American Karen Nyberg and Italian Luca Parmitano on the Kazakh steppe after returning from the International Space Station after a 166-day mission.
Slowed by parachutes and braking rockets fired to soften the impact, their Soyuz TMA-09M capsule landed on schedule at 8:49 a.m. (0249 GMT) after a three-and-half-hour descent.
"The Olympic torch is home after a four-day journey," a NASA TV announcer said after the flawless descent through a cloudless sky and a "bulls-eye touchdown" in the tall tawny brush of central Kazakhstan, near the remote town of Zhezkazgan.
President Vladimir Putin, who has been in power since 2000, has staked his reputation on a successful Olympics. His image abroad has been damaged by what critics say is a clampdown on dissent, and a law banning homosexual "propaganda" among minors.
The torch was unlit throughout the space voyage, for safety reasons. That also precluded the possibility that the flame could fail - a problem that has occurred dozens of times, including an incident captured live on national television in which the torch went out in the Kremlin minutes after Putin presided over the start of the relay.
Cosmonauts Oleg Kotov and Sergei Ryazansky took it with them on a spacewalk on Saturday, posing outside the orbiting station with the first Olympic torch taken into the vacuum of space.
After their return to Earth, Yurchikhin, Nyberg and Parmitano were pulled through the hatch of the cramped capsule, carried to chairs and covered with thick blankets against the minus 4 Centigrade (25 Fahrenheit) cold outside. Continued...