BAIKONUR KAZAKHSTAN – Three new crew members blast off Thursday for the International Space Station (ISS) on a Russian rocket, taking with them the precious cargo of an Olympic torch for the 2014 Winter Games in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
In an unprecedented move, the Olympic torch will on Saturday be taken out into open space on a spacewalk by two Russian cosmonauts to mark Russia’s hosting of the games in February.
The Soyuz-FG rocket and Soyuz-TMA capsule, emblazoned with the symbols of the Sochi Games and the Olympic rings, have already been installed on the launchpad of Russia’s Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
In a sign of the launch’s importance, it will be broadcast live on a big screen to thousands of people watching in New York’s Times Square, according to NASA.
The Soyuz will at 1:14 p.m. on Thursday take Japan’s Koichi Wakata, Russia’s Mikhail Tyurin and NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio on the six-hour trip to the ISS.
There they will join six incumbent crew on board, the first time since October 2009 that nine people have served together aboard the space station without the presence of the now retired U.S. space shuttle.
On board they will find station commander Fyodor Yurchikhin of Russia and flight engineers Karen Nyberg of NASA, Italy’s Luca Parmitano, Russian Oleg Kotov, NASA’s Mike Hopkins and Russian Sergei Ryazansky.
Kotov and Ryazansky will from 11:30 p.m. on Saturday carry the Olympic torch on a spacewalk outside the station. Russian officials have made clear that the torch will at no point be lit, for safety reasons.
In a crammed few days for the ISS, Yurchikhin, Nyberg and Parmitano will then end their 5½-month mission and return to Earth, touching down in Kazakhstan at 11:50 a.m. on Monday.
Joining them on the return after its brief spell in space will be the torch, which will later be used to light the Olympic flame at the Fisht stadium in Sochi for the opening ceremony on Feb. 7.
The return to Earth will draw the curtain on a dramatic mission for European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Parmitano, who suffered a scare during a spacewalk on July 16 when his helmet began to fill with an unidentified liquid. He described being blinded and suffocating as he struggled to make his way back to the air lock.