Russian Soyuz rocket flies Olympic torch to space station

Thu Nov 7, 2013 9:39am EST
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By Alissa de Carbonnel

BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan (Reuters) - A three-man crew took the Olympic torch to the International Space Station on a Russian rocket on Thursday, ready to send it on its first space walk in a showcase for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi.

An onboard camera showed Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata pumping the air with his fist as the Soyuz rocket, painted with snowflake patterns, lifted off from the Russian-rented Baikonur launch facility on a crisp, clear morning on the Kazakh steppe.

After a six-hour trip to the station, Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin crawled through a hatch and handed the unlit torch to his beaming countryman on board, Fyodor Yurchikhin.

"It was great ride and we're happy to be here," said U.S. astronaut Rick Mastracchio, who traveled with Tyurin and Wakata, in a videolink with relatives and space officials 250 miles below back on Earth.

Inspired by the Firebird of Russian folklore, the meter-long, red-and-silver torch weighs almost 2 kilograms (4.4 lbs) on Earth, but it floated lazily in zero gravity as Tyurin slowly twirled it in the weightlessness of the orbital outpost.

"It's just an outstanding day and a spectacular launch," William Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for human exploration and operations, told Reuters at Baikonur.

By tradition, a good-luck charm usually hangs above Soyuz crews when they lift off. Wakata, Tyurin and Mastracchio sat beneath a stuffed polar bear in a blue scarf, a mascot of the first Olympics Russia has hosted since the Soviet era.

The space flight is part of what will be the longest torch relay before a Winter Olympics that President Vladimir Putin hopes will burnish Russia's international image.   Continued...

The Soyuz TMA-11M spacecraft, emblazoned with the Sochi 2014 logo and a blue-and-white snowflake pattern, rests on its launch pad before the blast-off with the International Space Station (ISS) crew of Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata, Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin and NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio, at the Baikonur cosmodrome November 7, 2013. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov