Before It Arrives in Sochi, the Olympic Torch Will Spend Some Time in Space

Russia, the host of the 2014 Games, gets points for difficulty ... and points for artistry.
Expedition 38's Koichi Wakata of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, Mikhail Tyurin of Roscosmos, and Rick Mastracchio of NASA pose with the Olympic torch during a November 6 press conference in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. (NASA)

Is it possible to be jealous of an inanimate object? If so, then I am jealous of an inanimate object. Specifically, of the Sochi 2014 Olympic flame. Which has spent the past month—and will spend another three months—taking an envy-inducingly epic tour of Earth.

Before it makes its way to the shores of southern Russia in early February, the Olympic torch, with its symbolic flame, will have traveled to the North Pole (on a high-speed, nuclear-powered icebreaker). It will have summited Mount Elbrus, Europe's highest peak. It will have descended to the bottom of Lake Baikal, the world's deepest lake. It will have been transported by plane, train, car, icebreaker, and, yes, reindeer sleigh to more than 130 cities and towns in Russia. It will have traveled nearly 40,000 miles—the longest route in Olympic history—carried by some 14,000 people. It will have gotten to witness some of the most amazing places on Earth. 

And also! Some of the most amazing places outside of Earth. Because the Sochi 2014 torch, on top of everything else, is going on a spacewalk. The next crew of the International Space Station, departing late this evening from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, will carry the torch with them up into space (within, of course, a Soyuz rocket painted with the insignia of the Sochi Games). When Koichi Wakata, Mikhail Tyurin, and Rick Mastracchio arrive at the ISS, they, along with the six astronauts who are already aboard, will carry the torch through the various modules of the Station. 

But wait! you might be asking. Is it really a good idea to have an open flame in the ISS? And, no, it is not. Both because fire is, in general, best avoided in closed quarters ... but also because a flame would consume oxygen—a precious commodity in space. During its jaunt outside of Earth, apparently, the torch will use an "imitation flame." 

Former cosmonaut Alexey Leonov, left, the first man to perform a spacewalk, passed an Olympic torch to Mikhail Tyurin, who will lead the mission to the International Space Station in November. (Twitter/@DChernyshenko via NPR)

And then ... it will be taken it out into space. On Saturday, the cosmonauts Oleg Kotov and Sergei Ryazanskiy, who are currently crewing the Station, will conduct an EVA. And they'll bring, along with all their other equipment, a tool of a more ceremonial variety. The pair will take video and photos of the free-floating torch, Kotov told the AP, and are trying to time the walk so that, when the Station flies over southern Russia, Sochi will be visible in the background.

In other words, the world will soon see images of the most epic space junk ever. 

Which is a lot of effort, you might be thinking, for something that amounts to ceremony. Then again, much of space exploration amounts to ceremony. Olympics have always been about competition in the name of cooperation—and Russia, when astronauts return the torch to Earth on Monday, will win the unofficial global competition for most-creative-use-of-Olympic-torchery. Points for difficulty, and points for artistry. Saturday's walk, it's worth noting, won't be the first time that an Olympic torch has ventured into microgravity. In 1996, the U.S. space shuttle Atlantis flew the Atlanta Games' torch into space to celebrate that year's Summer Olympics. But did that torch encounter the vacuum of space? Nope. That's a first that's been reserved for the world of 2013.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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