MOSCOW – The Russian relay in the approach to the Olympic Games reached its peak Saturday, both figuratively and literally, as two Russian cosmonauts took the Olympic torch on a walk outside the International Space Station about 186 miles above Earth.
The torch, tied to the station by two ropes for security, was passed from one cosmonaut to another for an hour as they changed positions in search of a better vantage point for a photo op. Their seven colleagues – three Americans, two Russians, an Italian and a Japanese – watched from the station, giving them advice and directions by radio.
“You can’t afford such a rarity to be lost,” Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Korniyenko, who has spent 176 days in space, said from the studio of Rossiya-24, which broadcast the event live. “You can’t hold unfixed objects, you can’t be unfixed yourself. If you walk away (from the ship) no one will be able to help you.”
The torch, which is shaped like a curved sword, was never lit during the walk or, for safety reasons, inside the space station.
The Russian Olympic flame relay for the Sochi Games in February involves about 14,000 bearers carrying the torch on foot and by car, train, plane, submarine, horse and deer-pulled cart over 40,400 miles across Russia and beyond. The torch already has been taken to the North Pole and is expected to be carried to the top of the 18,510-foot-high Mt. Elbrus peak in the North Caucasus and down into the 5,387-foot-deep Baikal Lake in eastern Siberia.
Though Olympic torches have orbited in space before, the spacewalk was a first.
The torch was taken into orbit Thursday by three astronauts in a Russian Soyuz rocket and will return to Earth on Monday. It will be used to ignite the Olympic flame at the start of the Winter Games in Sochi, organizers said.
A military industrial plant in Krasnoyarsk famous for producing Russian Proton space rockets manufactured more than 14,000 torches so that each torch carrier could keep his or hers as a souvenir.
The cost of the operation has not been disclosed, but experts calculated that the Olympic Games in Sochi will be the most expensive in history, with its construction budget already exceeding $52 billion. The cost and allegations of corruption tied to the project have drawn fire from Kremlin critics, including former First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, who in an interview last month with The Los Angeles Times called the games “the scam of a century.”