Russian astronaut Oleg Kotov holds an Olympic torch as he begins a spacewalk outside the International Space Station in this still image taken from video courtesy of NASA TV. Credit: Reuters
A pair of Russian cosmonauts took an Olympic torch into open space for the first time in history 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 above Earth, where he waved it triumphantly.
He handed the torch to Sergei Ryazansky and they took turns posing with it, 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 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 cosmodrome on Thursday, bringing the number of crew aboard the station to nine for the first time without a U.S. shuttle parked at the outpost.
The spacewalk is a showcase for the Sochi Games in February, the first Olympics that Russia will hold 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 meter-long torch weighs almost 2 kg (4.4 lbs) on Earth.
Special tethers were attached to prevent it from floating away in the weightlessness of outer space.
It will be returned to Earth on Monday by Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin, U.S. astronaut Karen Nyberg and Italian Luca Parmitano and handed off to Sochi officials. It will be used to light the Olympic flame when the Games start of 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, Mt. Elbrus.
"This is a way to show the world what Russia is made of," Dmitry Kozak, the deputy prime minister Putin put in charge of planning the Olympics, said after the Baikonur launch.
Olympic torches have gone aboard spacecraft before, for the 1996 and 2000 Games, but never in open space.