As the XXII Winter Olympic Games begin in Sochi, Russia, the athletes who compete must turn their eyes to the sky to see how far the torch that is lighting the Olympic flame has traveled.
This torch, which has journeyed farther than any torch in Olympic relay history, arrives at Fisht Stadium in Sochi on the shores of the Black Sea. The traditional relay began in late September in Olympia, Greece. The torch, which in fact has been a succession of torches, traveled more than 40,000 miles through 2,900 towns and villages in 83 regions of Russia, to the top of Europe’s highest mountain, Mount Elbrus, in the western Caucasus mountain range, to the depths of Siberia’s Lake Baikal.
The symbol of peace, friendship, hope and understanding among the nations participating in the Olympic Games traveled by car, plane, reindeer and train, and by what arguably was its most unusual mode of transportation, a Russian Soyuz rocket that ferried it into space to the International Space Station, itself a symbol of peaceful international cooperation.
More than 14,000 people served as torchbearers during the relay, including Russian cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko, who next year will launch with NASA astronaut Scott Kelly to spend one year on the station; Sergey Krikalev, head of the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center; and Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to fly in space, who last year marked the 50th anniversary of her ground-breaking mission.
But it was Soyuz Commander Mikhail Tyurin of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), Rick Mastracchio of NASA and Koichi Wakata of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency who made the longest – and fastest -- leg of the relay, carrying the torch 260 miles into space at speeds up to 17,500 mph, launching Nov. 7 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
Six hours after launch, the Soyuz docked to the Rassvet module on the Earth-facing port of the Russian segment of the complex. Two hours later, hatches opened between the Soyuz and the station, enabling Tyurin and his Soyuz crewmates to float inside and present the torch to the six Expedition 37 crew members residing on the orbiting laboratory.
Two days later, on Nov. 9, Expedition 37 Flight Engineers Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazanskiy of Roscosmos suited up in Russian Orlan spacesuits and floated out of the Pirs airlock, carrying the torch with them for a high-flying photo opportunity at the beginning of a 5-hour, 50-minute spacewalk to prepare the Russian segment components for future assembly work.
Back inside after the spacewalk, the torch was used by Kotov as he ran with it on a treadmill exercise device to simulate a marathon. It also was used to document a mock relay by the nine Russian, U.S., Japanese and European crew members on board as each three-person crew took turns floating with the torch down the length of the massive outpost.
Finally, it was time to pack up the torch for its trip home. Expedition 37 Commander Fyodor Yurchikhin of Roscosmos, NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg and European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano climbed into their Soyuz spacecraft with the torch safely stowed away on Nov. 11 and undocked from the station. Just hours later, they made a parachute-assisted landing on the steppe of Kazakhstan southwest of the city of Karaganda, bringing home the symbol of the Olympics and handing it off to Russian space officials to enable it to resume its land-based journey toward its final destination --Sochi.
As the torch is used to light the Olympic flame in Sochi, and symbolizes harmony and goodwill throughout the games, the space station will remain one of the brightest objects in the night sky, a beacon of international cooperation and research providing tangible benefits for all humanity.