How NASA astronauts have cast their votes from space

NASA astronaut David Wolf was the first American to vote from space on the Mir Space Station in 1997.

Updated - November 03, 2020 05:54 pm IST

Published - November 03, 2020 05:40 pm IST

NASA astronaut Kate Rubins cast her vote from International Space Station's 'voting booth' last week.

NASA astronaut Kate Rubins cast her vote from International Space Station's 'voting booth' last week.

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Last week, NASA astronaut Kate Rubins cast her vote for the U.S. Presidential Election 250 miles above the Earth's surface. She cast her vote for the first time from International Space Station's voting booth in the 2016 election when she was an Expedition 48-49 member, making this year her second time voting from a low-Earth orbit.

Voting from space has been possible since 1997 when a bill was passed to legally allow voting from space in the U.S. state of Texas. That year, NASA astronaut David Wolf became the first American to vote from space on the Mir Space Station.

Since then, several NASA astronauts have exercised the civic duty from orbit.

How it works

A form of absentee voting, the process starts with filling a Federal Postcard Application (FPCA). U.S. military members and their families fill the same form while serving outside of the country. By completing it ahead of the launch, the space station crew members signal their intent to participate in an election from space, NASA explained in a statement.

Many scientists opt to vote as Texas residents as they train at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. Astronauts coming from other states can work with their respective counties to make special arrangements to vote from space.

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Once the FPCA is approved, a trial is conducted. The county clerk who manages elections in the astronaut's home county sends a test ballot to a team in the Space Center. They then use a space station training computer to test whether they're able to fill out and send it back to the county.

After a successful test, a secure electronic ballot generated by the clerk's office of the various counties in Texas is uplinked to the Johnson's Mission Control Center to the voting crew member. An e-mail with crew member-specific credentials is sent from the county clerk to the astronaut. These credentials allow the crew member to access the secure ballot.

The secure and completed ballot travels through NASA's Space Network, like most data transmitted between the space station and mission control. The network is managed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

After the astronaut fills out the specially designed, electronic absentee ballot aboard the orbiting laboratory, the document flows through a Tracking and Data Relay Satellite to a ground antenna at the White Sands Complex in New Mexico.

From New Mexico, NASA transfers the ballot to the Mission Control Center at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston and then on to the county clerk responsible for casting the ballot. The ballot is encrypted and only accessible by the astronaut and the clerk to preserve the vote’s integrity.

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The astronaut must record the vote by 7 p.m. local time on Election Day if voting as a Texas resident.

As NASA works toward sending astronauts to the Moon in 2024 and eventually on to Mars, the agency plans to continue to ensure astronauts who want to vote in space are able to, no matter where in the solar system they may be.

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