Posted on July 28, 2009
If you think it's a hassle going to the polls on Election Day, consider the logistics of voting from outer space! Americans who are discouraged by long lines at the polls and difficulties with obtaining absentee ballots may find renewed inspiration to make the effort, given what NASA astronauts have done over the past decade to ensure their participation in the democratic process.
As a state senator for the part of Texas where NASA's Johnson Space Center is located (and also where most astronauts live), Republican Mike Jackson was adamant that all of his constituents be counted; even if they weren't on the planet. In 1997 Jackson introduced legislation that would allow for all U.S. astronauts in space to vote in both local and national elections. George W. Bush, Texas governor at the time, would soon sign this proposal into law. Within the twelve-year period since, only four Americans in NASA's 50-year history have taken the opportunity to vote from space. The first orbital voter was NASA astronaut David Wolf, who cast his ballot for a 1997 Texas local election from Russia's Space Station Mir. In 2004 Leroy Chiao, NASA commander of the space station Expedition 10 crew, became the first American astronaut to vote in a presidential election. Since this time, astronauts Michael Lopez-Alegria and Clayton Anderson have also voted during their separate missions to the International Space Station in 2006 and 2007, respectively.
For astronauts in space who do not have access to mail or a post office, regular absentee ballots simply won't work. But the solution is surprisingly less complex than you might imagine (although not one FairVote would suggest as a general approach to voting). The process begins on planet Earth, where the astronauts need the help of their local County Clerk (in most cases for Harris or Brazonia counties, which contain Houston and the surrounding areas where most astronauts reside). The County Clerk's office first prepares a secure electronic ballot that is then relayed to the space station via NASA's Mission Control room at Johnson Space Center. Meanwhile, the Clerk's office also sends the astronaut a separate email containing login information and directions to access the ballot and vote. Once the astronaut completes the ballot, it is then sent back to Mission Control, who then sends the data to the County Clerk who decrypts the secure form in order to hand-tally the vote on a paper ballot to store with the rest. Astronauts who have voted from space in the past generally consider the fact that one other person (the County Clerk) will see their vote to be a minor, acceptable drawback. "It's kind of exciting when you open your computer in the morning and you've got a message from outer space," says Galveston County Clerk Mary Ann Daigle.
Most astronauts have appreciated the opportunity to vote from space; acknowledging that it is not only a chance to exercise their democratic right, but also a refreshing link home during a time of intense isolation. Astronaut David Wolf explains, "It's something that, you know, you might or might not expect it to mean a great deal. But when you're so removed from your planet, small things do have a large impact." America looks rather small to astronauts orbiting hundreds of miles above Earth's surface, but they still recognize that voting is an important privilege not to be taken for granted. It serves as a lesson that we should all take advantage of our opportunities to go to the polls and vote. If astronauts can do it from space, then there's definitely no excuse for us.