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Russia fired up about Olympic torch 'stunt' on crowded space station

Russian cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station are in the final stages of a spectacular "space stunt" to celebrate February's Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. The stage is set, complete with a garishly painted, Olympic-themed rocket and an outer-space torch relay race.

It all starts on Thursday, when three fresh spacefliers - and the Olympic torch - are to be launched aboard Russia's Soyuz TMA-11M spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Two days later, in a televised event, cosmonauts Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazanskiy will put on their spacesuits and leave the pressurized space station.

For the first hour of their planned six-hour spacewalk, they will pose with the torch, handing it back and forth with appropriately spacey background scenes. The torch will be returned to Earth by a different Soyuz crew on Monday.

The "torch handover" spacewalk spectacle is part of Russia’s grandiose plans to promote the Sochi Olympics. And the existence of the space station and a reliable Earth-to-space transportation system allows the celestial ceremony to take place without significant expense. It does, however, present some procedural irregularities.

Extra space assignment
Programming and scheduling requirements have compelled space station managers to make some significant additions to their normal work plans. The added complexity and crew workload raised some questions about the heightened risk of mechanical or procedural errors - but so far, so good.

The biggest additional challenge will be to have three crewed Soyuz ferry ships, each with three seats, docked at the station simultaneously. This significantly strains the space and life support systems on board. It's been done only once before, four years ago. That experience led to the decision to never do it again.

Instead, a different pattern has been followed four times a year, without any "triple overlap." The normal crew contingent of six (on six-month tours of duty) is changed out three at a time, with one trio returning to Earth, leaving another three still aboard. A few weeks later, a new crew is launched, bringing the crew back up to six.

This time, the sequence will be more complicated. While both Soyuzes remain docked, the third Soyuz will be launched with three additional crew members, bringing the total — temporarily — to nine. The crew goes back to six when one of the previously docked Soyuzes returns to Earth on Monday. 

The current station crew commander, Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin, will carry the torch back to Earth on that Soyuz after the spacewalk ceremony. Yurchikhin, a veteran space engineer, is expected to make a speech about the classical Greek origins of the Olympic Games, since his mother is Greek and he speaks the language fluently.

Increased risks
The normal confusion of stuffing nine people into the space station doesn't seem to worry NASA. After all, the station hosted as many as 10 spacefliers during space shuttle dockings. But on those occasions, the shuttle itself provided living space and life support for the visitors. 

The station’s "Russian segment" has four docking ports now, so three Soyuzes can easily find slots. The fourth is to be allocated to a robot supply ship, although the juggling still required one of the Soyuz crews to get into their ship and "redock" it from one port to another. 

Throwing in a labor-intensive spacewalk during a crew handover is an unprecedented complication. And because Russian spacewalks have to occur during orbits that cross over Russian territory, it compels some sleep shifting for the other spacefliers. One trio will just be recovering from the intensive rendezvous and docking, while the other trio will be undergoing intensive medical reconditioning and reviewing the procedures for Monday's landing. 

So the action won’t just be outside on the day the torch is passed. The entire population of outer space will be feverishly occupied with their own epic duties, made more complex by the Russian passion for self-promoting space spectaculars. It can only be hoped that all contestants pull straight 10s for their performance during this contest. 

Space trivia note: Soyuz TMA-11M will carry Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata, who will become the space station's first Japanese commander early next year. Purely by cosmic coincidence, Wakata was on the station four years ago for the first triple Soyuz docking.

Update for 7 p.m. ET Nov. 6: In case you're wondering, the torch will not be lit during its trip to space and back. Instead, the Olympic flame will be tended back on Earth. Then, in February, the space-flown torch will be used during the opening ceremonies at the Sochi Olympics.

For the space trip, the torch has been outfitted with a tether to make sure it doesn't fly away during the spacewalk. This will mark the first time an Olympic torch has been taken into the vacuum of space; however, an unlit torch replica made the trip to the International Space Station in 2000 on the shuttle Atlantis. NASA says a symbolic torch was also flown on Atlantis' 1996 mission to Russia's Mir space station.

NBC News space analyst James Oberg spent 22 years at NASA Mission Control, where he carried the title of Rendezvous Guidance and Procedures Officer — RGPO, pronounced "Arr-Jeep-O." In that capacity he sat in the center of Mission Control's front row, down in the legendary "trench" of space maneuvering specialists.