By the time the Olympic cauldron is lighted for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, the torch relaying the symbolic flame of the competition will have been to the top of Europe’s highest mountain, plunged to the depths of the world’s deepest lake, reached the North Pole on an icebreaker and accompanied cosmonauts on a spacewalk.
In Olympic host nations’ undeclared competition for showcasing the torch as it makes its way to the competition venue, the Russian organizers of the Games that open in three months have embarked on an ambitious itinerary.
On Thursday, a Russian Soyuz spacecraft blasted off from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and six hours later docked with the orbiting International Space Station.
The three arriving spacemen – Russian Mikhail Tyurin, American Rick Mastracchio and Koichi Wakata of Japan – floated weightlessly through the ISS-Soyuz portal with the extinguished torch in tow. It will be carried outside the space station Saturday by Russians Oleg Kotov and Sergei Ryazansky on their open-space technical mission that Russia Today television predicts will be “overshadowed by a designated one-hour photo shoot for the Olympic symbol.”
The torch, which was unlighted for safety reasons, has twice been to outer space before, aboard the U.S. space shuttle Atlantis ahead of the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta and four years later to the space station to celebrate the games in Sydney.
Russia’s promotion of the torch relay is the longest in Olympic history, having begun its 39,000-mile, 130-stop tour of the massive country a month ago.
The torch began its journey Oct. 7 with a trip to the North Pole aboard a nuclear-powered icebreaker. Once back from its space voyage Monday with three departing space station crew members, the torch will continue on its travels by train, plane, car and reindeer sleigh to its next high-profile event: a plunge to the bottom of Siberia’s Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest water body.
Before arriving in Sochi for its cameo role at the Feb. 7 opening ceremony, the torch will be taken by mountain climbers to the top of Mount Elbrus, at 18,510 feet the highest in Europe.