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Out of this world: Astronauts cast ballots from space

Posted November 7

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly took this photograph in the cupola of the International Space Station on Flag Day 2015. Photo courtesy of NASA

According to data released by the North Carolina Secretary of State’s office, 3.1 million votes were cast early in North Carolina this year, an increase of about 15% over 2012. The rest have their chance to vote on Tuesday at their assigned polling place or by mailing in an absentee ballot.

But what if your job takes you somewhere that no postal service reaches, like low earth orbit?

During Space Shuttle, Apollo and earlier programs, missions were planned years in advance and measured in days, enabling astronauts to submit absentee ballots. Today’s space station missions last six months or more though and ballots aren’t available before launch.

Then Texas Governor George W. Bush signed a bill into law in 1997 enabling astronauts like the current International Space Station Commander Shane Kimbrough to vote from 250 miles up and 17,500 miles per hour.

David Wolf became the first astronaut to cast a vote from space in a local election in 1997 from aboard the Mir Space Station. Astronauts see this as making a statement about the importance of voting.

Astronauts receive their ballot as an encrypted PDF file generated by the astronauts home county clerk’s office. The file, which can be opened only by the astronaut and the clerk, is emailed to the astronauts account and uploaded along with all other email. Once returned, the clerk records the vote by hand on a standard ballot.

Russian cosmonauts follow a similar procedure but instead of encrypted email, they communicate their vote through a closed communication channel to the head cosmonaut on the ground who records the vote on paper with great ceremony for television cameras.

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