The Olympic Torch That Went Around the World… Literally

Ever since the first relay for the 1936 summer Olympic games in Berlin, Olympic torches have traditionally been used to carry a burning flame — symbolically and physically — from Greece to the host country’s stadium. These journeys, undertaken by privileged individuals and athletes from around the world, span months and many thousands of miles… but this year, the fire illuminating the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia will be ignited with a torch that has truly traveled around the globe — many times, in fact.

On Nov. 6, 2013 (Nov. 7 UT) a Soyuz TMA-11M rocket launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan ferrying the Expedition 38/39 crew to the ISS. Along with their mission supplies and personal items, the crew members brought along something special: a torch for the 2014 Olympics.

Read more: Crew Launches to Space with Olympic Torch

The torch was brought into space two days later by Expedition 38 crew members Oleg Kotov and Sergei Ryazanskiy during an EVA on Nov. 9, and handed off from one cosmonaut to the other in a symbolic relay in orbit, the first to be carried out 265 miles above the planet traveling 17,500 mph. (Watch a video of the EVA below.)

The Olympic torch in orbit during an EVA on Nov. 9, 2013
The Olympic torch in orbit during an EVA on Nov. 9, 2013

I say “symbolic” because the torch was not lit during its time aboard the ISS or, obviously, while in space. (Open flames are highly frowned upon aboard Station!) Still, it was the first time in history an Olympic torch, a symbol of peace, human achievement, and international cooperation, has been brought aboard the Space Station — which itself represents the same noble values.

Considering the ISS travels around the Earth 16 times each day, and the torch spent nearly four days in space, that’s one well-traveled fire bearer!

The spacefaring torch was carried back to Earth with Expedition 37 crew members Karen Nyberg of NASA, Fyodor Yurchikhin of the Russian Federal Space Agency, and Luca Parmitano of the European Space Agency on Sunday, Nov. 10. And while the actual Olympic flame had continued to be carried by torchbearers across more than 40,000 miles through 2,900 towns and villages in Russia, it will be that particular spacefaring torch that will be used to light the 2014 Olympic cauldron during the Opening Ceremony in Sochi on Feb. 7.

“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.” (NASA)

Read more in a recent NASA news article here, and learn more about the 2014 Sochi Olympic torch here.