A Russian rocket delivered an Olympic torch to the International Space Station today, in preparation for the first-ever spacewalk with a torch on Saturday. The extraterrestrial delivery, made by a three-man crew, adds another destination to Russia’s globe-hopping, record-setting Olympic relay – and once again showcases Russia's ambition to make the Sochi Games a celebration of the country's global resurgence.
The launch was heavy with Olympic symbolism, Reuters reported from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan:
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. ...
By tradition, a good-luck charm usually hangs above Soyuz crews when they lift off. Wakata, [Russian cosmonaut Mikhail] Tyurin and [U.S. astronaut Rick] Mastracchio sat beneath a stuffed polar bear in a blue scarf, a mascot of the first Olympics Russia has hosted since the Soviet era.
This is not the first time that an Olympic torch traveled to space; that happened twice before, in 1996 and 2000. But the upcoming spacewalk, when three Russian astronauts will have “a kind of relay of our own” outside the airlock, will be an unprecedented first. (The torch will remain unlit throughout its space trip for safety reasons, while the Olympic flame remains lit on the ground below.)
For Russian President Vladimir Putin, the spacewalk will be a timely opportunity to remind the world of Russia’s history of space exploration. With the Sochi Games just three months away, the winding journey of the Olympic torch has become an impressive branding exercise in its own right.
In October, the Olympic flame traveled on a Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker – the largest of its kind in the world – to the North Pole, emphasizing Russia's increasingly decisive stance in the Arctic. This month, it will plunge to the bottom of Siberia's Lake Baikal, the world's deepest lake. And right before the Olympic opening ceremony in February, it will be taken to the top of Mount Elbrus, a peak in the Caucasus mountains that is the highest in Russia and Europe.
Russia's quest to parlay its role as the Olympic Games organizer into improved global standing is not out of the ordinary. What's unique is the sheer scale of the Sochi Olympic flame's itinerary, which seeks to push the envelope on every level and will ultimately add up to an unprecedented 40,000 miles. As such, it is setting the stage for the Sochi Games itself, which the Kremlin hopes will showcase the dramatic modernization the country has achieved on Vladimir Putin’s watch.
“Russia is a very special country,” Dmitry Chernyshenko, president of the Sochi organizing committee, told BBC. “There are few countries capable of sending an icebreaker to the North Pole. Also we are sending the Olympic torch into outer space and that particular device will be the torch that lights the Olympic flame in the cauldron at the opening ceremony on 7 February 2014.”