Air Prayer: Space Priest Blesses Russian Launch

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Bill Ingalls / NASA

OK, this is not exactly a picture that cries out “impending space launch.” But that’s just what was about to happen, which is  why Russian Orthodox Priest Father Sergei was in the Cosmonaut Hotel, in Baikonur, Kazakhstan on Nov. 7. The part candlestick, part art installation on the table next to him is the Sochi Olympic torch, which was going along (unlit) with a new three-person crew to the International Space Station. There is a traditional blessing before every Russian launch, which may or may not help explain the Soyuz spacecraft’s multi-decade record of reliable flight, but why mess with a good thing? No word if the astronauts—Commander Mikhail Tyurin of the Russian space agency, Flight Engineer Koichi Wakata of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and Flight Engineer Rick Mastracchio of NASA—indulged in that other Russian pre-flight tradition, originated by Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space: urinating against a tire of the vehicle that takes them out to the launchpad. Still, something must have worked, because the torch spent three successful days aloft and was even carried along on a spacewalk, thumping down to Earth on Nov. 12 with the returning space station crew. The torch will be carried most of the rest of its long route to Sochi on foot—a mite slower than the 17,500 mph it moved in space.