NASA Helps Astronauts Cast Ballots from Space

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station are far away from the action in the presidential race. Luckily for them, NASA and Texas understand the unique needs of space-traveling citizens, who want their votes counted.

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If this year's primary season is any guide, the presidential election is likely to see record voter turnout. But a couple of would-be voters won't be able to get to the polls. That's because they're astronauts who will be orbiting the earth on Election Day.

NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports on voting in zero gravity.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: Right now, Greg Chamitoff is whizzing around the planet in the International Space Station. Before he blasted off last month, there was the usual press conference, and a reporter said, hey, you're going to be living in orbit for a long time. Have you requested an absentee ballot?

Mr. GREG CHAMITOFF (Astronaut): Yeah. In act, I have. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Chamitoff's return flight is scheduled for November, after Election Day.

Mr. CHAMITOFF: Well, I think it sounds like I'll be up there at that time.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So will another astronaut, Mike Fink, who goes up in October. For these potential voters, a regular old absentee ballot won't work. They can't get mail or go to a post office. Lucky for them, they live in Texas, and Texas understands the unique needs of its space-traveling citizens. The voting issue first came up over a decade ago. Bill Clinton and Bob Dole were duking it out for the presidency, and astronaut John Blaha was headed up to the Russian space station Mir. He was going to be up there from September through the following January.

State Senator MIKE JACKSON (Republican, Texas): So there was no way that he could vote in the presidential election or any of the other elections, and he expressed a little bit of disappointment in not being able to do that.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Mike Jackson is a state senator for the part of Texas around NASA's Johnson Space Center, where most astronauts live. He was not okay with the idea that some of his constituents wouldn't get counted just because they happened to be off the planet.

State Sen. JACKSON: I can attest to how important one person's vote is because my first election I won by seven votes out of over 26,000.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Jackson says it was too late for Blaha to vote, but the Texas legislature did pass a law on space voting. It was signed by then Governor George W. Bush.

Ms. MARY ANN DAIGLE (Clerk of Galveston County): Voting from outer space is Chapter 81, Subchapter B, Rule 35.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Mary Ann Daigle is the clerk of Galveston County. She's processed a couple of outer space votes over the years. She says NASA put special software on her computer so she can create a ballot. It's sort of like a Word document that's protected by a password. She sends it to Houston's mission control, and they transmit it to the spacecraft. After the astronaut votes, it's relayed back to her inbox.

Ms. DAIGLE: It's kind of exciting when you open up your computer in the morning and you've got a message from outer space or something like that.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The astronaut's choices aren't secret. She has to open the electronic ballot and copy the choices onto a regular paper one.

Ms. DAIGLE: And election night, I stick his ballot in with the rest of them and it is just voted like that.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The very first American to take advantage of this process was David Wolf in 1997. He was living on Mir at the time. He says it was just a little local election and he doesn't even recall who the candidates were, but he does remember that he felt so isolated up there in the Russian space station that filling out the ballot was strangely moving.

Mr. DAVID WOLF (Astronaut): 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.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So far, the only astronaut to vote in a presidential election from space is Leroy Chiao.

Mr. LEROY CHIAO (Astronaut): In practical terms, it's a fairly simple thing to do, buy symbolically I think it was important. And that's why we took the effort to make all the public service announcements and to try to get the word out.

(Soundbite of public service announcement)

Mr. CHIAO: Hi, I'm Leroy Chiao, commander of Expedition 10 aboard the International Space Station.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: NASA's videos show Chiao floating as he talks about the 2004 election.

(Soundbite of public service announcement)

Mr. CHOW: When I cast my vote, we'll flying at speed of five miles a second on the International Space Station. Back on Earth, don't let the world pass you by. Be part of the process and vote.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But voting isn't always easy, even in space. A spokesperson for the Harris County clerk says they sent up an astronaut ballot last year. It never came back. NASA says there was a technical glitch, and with a shuttle mission underway, they were just too busy to fix it.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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