BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan (Reuters) - A pair of Russian cosmonauts took an Olympic torch into open space for the first time on Saturday as part of the torch relay of the Sochi 2014 Winter Games.
Gripping the unlit silver-and-red torch in the gloved fist of his spacesuit, Oleg Kotov crawled through a hatch and stepped outside the International Space Station some 200 miles (320 km) above Earth, where he waved it triumphantly.
He handed the torch to Sergei Ryazansky and they took turns posing with it in a zero-gravity film session with the station, the blackness of outer space and the blue-and-white orb of Earth as backdrops.
“That’s a beautiful view,” Ryazansky said.
The footage, most taken from cameras mounted on the cosmonauts’ spacesuit helmets, was broadcast live on the U.S. space agency NASA’s internet channel and Russian state television.
A three-man Russian, American and Japanese crew carried the torch up on a Soyuz rocket from the Baikonur launch facility in Kazakhstan on Thursday, bringing the number of crew aboard the station to nine.
The spacewalk is a showcase for the Sochi Games in February, the first Olympics that Russia will host since the Soviet era and a crucial event for President Vladimir Putin, who has been in power for nearly 14 years.
Inspired by the Firebird of Russian folklore, the metre-long torch weighs almost 2 kg (4.4 lbs) on Earth. Special tethers were attached to ensure it could not float away in the weightlessness of outer space.
The two cosmonauts occasionally let go of the torch, which spent more than an hour in open space before Ryazansky returned it to the station and they turned to other tasks.
The torch will be returned to Earth on Monday by Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin, U.S. astronaut Karen Nyberg and Italian Luca Parmitano, of the European Space Agency, and handed off to Sochi 2014 officials.
It will be used to light the Olympic flame when the Games start on February 7.
Russia is conducting the longest torch relay before any Winter Olympics, a 65,000-km (40,000-mile) trek that has taken the flame to the North Pole on an atomic-powered icebreaker and will bring it to Europe’s highest peak, Mount Elbrus.
“This is a way to show the world what Russia is made of,” Dmitry Kozak, the deputy prime minister in charge of planning the Olympics, said after the Baikonur launch. He said it would display Russia’s “might” and its economic achievements.
Putin is taking a risk by staging the Games in Sochi, a beach and mountain resort where nearly all the venues had to be built from scratch.
He has faced criticism and calls to boycott the Games over a law he signed in June banning homosexual “propaganda” among minors, which critics say amounts to a ban on gay-rights rallies.
On the ground, the torch relay continued on Saturday in Siberia’s vast Yakutia region. The flame has gone out dozens of times, prompting both humour and criticism from Russians.
Olympic torches have been taken aboard spacecraft before, for the 1996 and 2000 Games, but never into open space.
Additional reporting and writing by Steve Gutterman in Moscow; Editing by Kevin Liffey