Cue the Olympic anthem as a Soyuz spacecraft carrying a multinational crew, including NASA's Rick Mastracchio, lifted off today from Kazakhstan.
An Olympic torch will join the crew for a six-hour sprint to the International Space Station, then perform a synchronized spacewalk Saturday and attempt to stick a landing back on Earth the next day.
The orbital gymnastics are part of the torch relay leading up to the 2014 Winter Games hosted by Russia in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi.
"All the activities related to this torch are symbolic and are significant," said cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin, who is preparing to launch tonight with Mastracchio and Koichi Wakata of Japan.
Their liftoff in a rocket emblazoned with the emblem of the Sochi Winter Games will be televised in New York City's Times Square.
Between them, Mastracchio, Wakata and Tyurin have spent nearly 540 days in space on eight spaceflights dating back to 1996.
Their arrival at about 5:30 a.m. Thursday will briefly raise the station's occupancy to nine for the first time, without a shuttle present, since 2009.
Mastracchio, a 53-year-old Connecticut native, helped assemble the outpost during three shuttle missions starting in 2000, when he said it "had that new space station smell."
On his fourth flight, "I'm really looking forward to actually spending a long period of time up there, helping to do some research, get involved in the science and actually use the space station for what it was intended," he said.
The nine crew members, also including Americans Karen Nyberg and Mike Hopkins, will host a joint news conference Friday with media around the globe.
Some will be focused on the Olympics, others on the upcoming 15th anniversary of the launch of the first ISS module, perhaps others on Wakata's future role as the station's first Japanese commander.
On Saturday, the unlit Olympic torch will be carried outside during a Russian spacewalk, which may win the two cosmonauts, Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazanskiy, style points as they perform station maintenance, but is unlikely to impress with technical difficulty.
"It's not a complicated task," Tyurin explained during pre-launch interviews in Houston. "Just take it out, take a few pictures and bring back."
Then the torch will be passed to Nyberg, Italian Luca Parmitano and cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin as they board another Soyuz for the ride home.
The trio is scheduled to depart the outpost Sunday for a landing on the steppes of Kazakhstan at 9:50 p.m. EST.