While most Americans will flock to the polls Tuesday to cast their vote for the next U.S. president, two U.S. citizens will beam their ballots down from the International Space Station as they fly 220 miles (354 km) above Earth.
Like all U.S. spaceflyers since 1997, NASA astronauts Michael Fincke and Gregory Chamitoff can vote in their local and national elections thanks to a handy Texas state law that ensures their ballots can be counted, even from space.
"So I'm going to exercise my privilege as a citizen and actually vote from space on Election Day," Fincke, the space station's Expedition 18 commander, told SPACE.com before he left Earth. "I think the candidates this year are exciting in and of themselves. But hopefully we get people to realize what a privilege it is, and they exercise and get a chance to vote."
Only four Americans in NASA's 50-year history have voted from space, largely because the Texas law allowing was passed just 11 years ago, said Nicole Cloutier-Lemasters, a spokesperson with NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. And just one of those four, now-retired spaceflyer Leroy Chiao, voted during a presidential election in 2004 while commanding the space station's Expedition 10 crew.
"I was so busy preparing for my ISS mission in 2004 that I almost forgot about the fact that I would be in space during that U.S. presidential election," Chiao told SPACE.com, adding that it was his wife Karen who remembered he'd be in orbit on Election Day. "As she and NASA looked into it, the process turned out to be fairly straightforward. Another astronaut had already voted from space earlier for a state election, so the law allowing this was already established. It was just a matter of applying it to the presidential election."
Fincke and Chamitoff have been encouraging the American people to remember that no matter which presidential candidate they choose, be it a ballot for Barack Obama (D-Ill.) of John McCain (R-Arizona), that they remember to vote above all else.
"Voting is the most important statement Americans can make in fulfilling a cherished right to select its leaders," Fincke said in a NASA TV video with Chamitoff. "So this Election Day, take time to go to the polls and vote. If we can do it, so can you."
How astronauts vote from space
The process of voting from space actually begins on the ground. According to the 1997 bill, astronauts in space can cast an absentee ballot from their spacecraft with the help of the County Clerk of Harris and Brazoria counties, which contain Houston and its surrounding area.
The County Clerk's office prepares a secure electronic ballot that is then relayed to the International Space Station via NASA's Mission Control room at the Johnson Space Center. Meanwhile, the Clerk's Office sends a separate e-mail to the astronaut with login information to access the ballot and vote.
"So there's this plan in place and I'll have an electronic ballot and be able to vote from up here," Chamitoff told SPACE.com from the space station recently.
The completed ballot is then beamed back to Mission Control and sent back to the County Clerk's office to be tallied.
The process, Chiao explained, is an appreciated link to life on Earth among NASA's spaceflyers.
"I was thankful for everyone making it possible for me to vote from space," he said, adding that he too hoped it encouraged others to vote. "I think it was an important symbolic gesture. Also, it was important to me personally."
Coincidentally, Chiao is also outside the U.S. during this presidential election, but not in space. He made sure to vote early before departing the country on travel, he told SPACE.com.
There is one drawback to voting from space. Unlike the privacy of a booth on Earth, at least one other person besides the astronaut will actually know who the spaceflyer voted for, since a voting officer must decrypt the secure form in order to count it, Fincke said.
"So one other person, she's going to see who I voted for," he said. "If you can't trust her, you can't trust anyone. So it's a pretty solid system."
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