A torch in space

November 12, 2013

Zhezkazgan, central Kazakhstan

By Shamil Zhumatov


During more than a decade of covering Russia’s space exploration program, I have seen pretty unusual missions. I have taken pictures of an investor heading for the International Space Station, as well as those of a clown and programmers flying into orbit. But the most recent space launch and landing have probably become the most unforgettable – the torch of the forthcoming 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia’s Sochi reached space and then returned to Earth. Now, as I play back this hectic flurry of events, it is still hard to believe how closely these two things are entwined – the Olympics and space. The Olympic Games had been aimed by the authorities to strengthen Russia’s image. Given this ambitious task set by Moscow, Russia’s space program – a symbol of national pride, albeit marred by several botched unmanned launches – simply couldn’t stand aloof. Space was doomed to become part of this bright political show.

A few months earlier, when I learnt about the future mission of the torch, the only question that haunted my friends was – how will it burn in space? Their avid interest was heated by the torch itself, whose flame had gone out several times since the Olympic relay across Russia began last month. One of my colleagues even joked that while in space the torch would need “a man with a lighter”, recalling the image of a resourceful plainclothes security agent who saved the day, reigniting the torch with a cigarette lighter when the flame went out right at the start of the relay in the Kremlin on October 6. But as the launch date of November 7 drew nearer, there was a general sigh of relief – the torch would not be lit aboard the space station for safety reasons, and it simply would not be able to burn in outer space due to the laws of nature.

The show began on November 5 at 0700 sharp. The gates of a giant hangar at Russia’s Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan opened, and at the sound of a whistle a locomotive slowly rolled out a Soyuz rocket, whose normally white-and-grey body was now decorated with Sochi Olympics trademark snowflake patterns. A quick glance at a large number of armed policemen, their armor and helicopters hovering overhead left no one in doubt that the upcoming launch was of paramount importance to Moscow.

Nowadays Russia’s space program is no longer in the limelight as was the case during the heyday of its glory, but there was an unusually large number of journalists at that pre-flight news conference. The torch, placed on a smaller table between the main and backup crews, was in dissonance with the routine picture and created an impression of a third person being present. U.S. astronaut Rick Mastracchio often looked at it during the news conference.

Photographic equipment plays a crucial role in covering space launches at Baikonur. I use the entire arsenal at my disposal – three cameras, the same number of tripods and a monopod, an array of lenses and a myriad of minor contraptions, including a miniature ladder and bags for gravel to support tripods of remotes cameras. Unfortunately, Russia’s space gate lacks broadband connection which would allow us to send pictures straight from the launch-pad. So, I had to add a Bgan satellite modem on top of the above-mentioned equipment, and my personal “Olympic relay” turned into a weightlifting exercise.

My shoot started six hours before the launch, when the main crew left their hotel. To the tune of the same 1980s song, the space crew boarded a bus. Lit by cameras and photo flashes, Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin was carrying the torch. Relatives, friends and space program workers hailed the crew.

This time, it was my turn to take pictures of the crew boarding the rocket. The spaceship was already fueled, so access was limited. News agencies of the space pool take turns to cover space launches during the year. At this launch, everyone was haunted by one intriguing question – how will Mikhail Tyurin wave his hand to bid good-bye, if he was carrying a conditioner ventilating his space-suit in one hand and his other hand was busy holding the torch? But he elegantly put the box with the conditioner on the stairs before entering the space lift, and joyously raised both hands in a final salute.

Two-and-a-half hours later, the quiet Kazakh steppe was disturbed by the roar of the Soyuz rocket as it blasted off into the morning sky, taking the Olympic torch to orbit. As they say, it was “all nominal” amid a sea of fire. I sent my pictures and flew off to Karaganda in central Kazakhstan aboard a Russian Air Force plane kindly offered to me, to cover the landing of the torch a few days later.


Three days later, I was lying on the floor of a Russian Mi-8 helicopter, with my nose pressed against a closed hatch. I was firmly fixed by a safety tether, a stool above me and my colleagues sitting on this stool. The helicopter was hovering at a height of about 3 km (1.8 miles) in the area designated for the landing of a space capsule carrying the outgoing space station crew and the Olympic torch.

NASA photographer Carla Cioffi was at the ready next to me. We could not spot the parachute of the descent capsule through portholes, but our position gave us a strong advantage in covering the very moment of touchdown. All of a sudden, the hatch was flung open, as if the curtain was raised in a theater, and what we saw immediately was the space capsule hanging under a bright orange parachute in the rays of a rising sun. What a fantastic view! I had taken similar pictures so many times, but this view continues to mesmerize me. The rattle of the engines created a strange cacophony with squalls of the wintry air which rocked my camera. I couldn’t hear the clicks of the shutter, and I took pictures as if I were making a silent film. The main thing here was not to get carried away by the process and avoid taking too many pictures, which would later complicate the selection of the best ones.

Engines cushioning the landing worked well, raising clouds of dust, and five minutes later we were running to the capsule lying on one side in an endless steppe. It was business as usual for the search and recovery team – until they finally got the torch from the capsule. A thrilled and bashful Russian space worker handed the torch over to Fyodor Yurchikhin, commander of the landing crew. By that time, the crew members were already resting nearby in semi-reclined chairs, protected with blankets from the chilly steppe wind.

Near the capsule, helicopter pilots were holding a large poster featuring the flame of the future Sochi Olympics. After a short filming session, the crew was carefully taken to a nearby inflatable tent for medical checks, while I found my helicopter No. 15 and rushed to transmit my pictures. When all others had boarded, I only had a few seconds to run off and pick up my satellite modem. The helicopter took off, headed for Karaganda where the crew’s news conference would begin shortly. And, invariably, one of the journalists asks the hackneyed question: “How was the torch lit in space?”

For me, that was the end of my personal week-long, some 4500 kilometers (2796 miles), relay with the Olympic torch.

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