MOSCOW – A rocket carrying the Olympic torch successfully blasted off Thursday from Earth on its way to the International Space Station and its first spacewalk in history.
Starting a spectacular leg of the relay counting down to the Sochi 2014 Winter Games, NASA Live TV showed the rocket emblazoned with the pale blue Sochi logo launching from the Russian-operated Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
Russia's Mikhail Tyurin, NASA's Rick Mastracchio and Koichi Wakata of Japan beamed at the crowd as they carried the lit torch aboard the Soyuz rocket for its five-day visit.
The torch will not burn on board the space outpost because lighting it would consume precious oxygen and pose a threat to the crew. The crew will carry the unlit torch around the station's numerous modules before taking it out on a spacewalk.
The Olympic torch was taken aboard the U.S. space shuttle Atlantis in 1996 for the Atlanta Summer Olympics, but this is the first it time it will be taken outside the spacecraft.
"It's a great pleasure and responsibility getting to work with this symbol of peace," Tyurin told journalists on Wednesday before the launch.
Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov and Sergei Ryazanskiy, who are currently manning the International Space Station, will take the torch out of the space station on Saturday, before it is returned to earth by three astronauts on Monday.
The four-month Sochi torch relay, which started in Moscow on Oct. 7, is the longest in the history of the Olympics. For most of the 65,000-kilometer (39,000-mile) route, it will travel by plane, train, car and even reindeer sleigh.
Some 14,000 torch bearers are taking part in the relay that stops at more than 130 cities and towns.
Last month, the Olympic flame traveled to the North Pole on a Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker. Later this month it will sink to the bottom of the world's deepest lake, Lake Baikal, and in February it will reach the peak of Mount Elbrus, at 5,642 meters (18,510 feet) the highest mountain in Russia and Europe.
The torch will be used to light the Olympic flame at Sochi's stadium on Feb. 7, marking the start of the 2014 Winter Games that run until Feb. 23.