Two-Hundred-Mile Ballot Box: The Importance of Voting From Space

Astronauts Kevin Ford (in blue shirt) and Sunita Williams (in red shirt) are pictured with Russian crewmates in the International Space Station’s Destiny laboratory on 25 October. Williams and Ford cast their absentee votes in the presidential election before launch. Photo Credit: NASA

From a nation with an estimated quarter of a billion registered voters, two of them were most definitely out of town on this particularly critical Election Day. Astronauts Sunita Williams and Kevin Ford are currently in residence aboard the International Space Station, some 250 miles above Earth, although their right to make their choice of who should lead the United States for the next four years has certainly been heard. In fact, both Williams and Ford cast their votes from Russia, prior to travelling into orbit aboard their respective Soyuz craft, earlier this year. Several others have also voted from space, using secure email, although the first American to be in orbit during a presidential election was barred…and it was his case which sparked a change in the law in Texas.

When John Blaha launched to the Russian Mir space station in September 1996, his four-month expedition was expected to overlap the climax of the contest between incumbent President Bill Clinton and his Republican challenger, Bob Dole. Since Blaha rose from Earth before absentee ballots had been finalised, and returned to terra firma after Clinton had won re-election, his predicament caused much public interest and controversy. Blaha was a registered Houston voter. Some argued that it was the opportunity to capitalise on this public interest that spurred Texan politicians to amend the election statuses of their residents to permit voting from orbit.

Despite the broad grin, John Blaha’s four-month mission to Mir was stressful and difficult. His desire to participate in the 1996 presidential election was barred by Texas legislation. Photo Credit: NASA

In late 1997, aboard Mir, astronaut Dave Wolf became the first US citizen to formally vote in a local election from space. A ballot was sent by the Galveston County Clerk’s office to Mission Control in Houston, from which the astronaut cast his vote, which was then routed securely to the relevant authorities. “When you’re so removed from your planet,” Wolf recalled in a 2008 interview, “small things do have a large impact.”

Neither Sunita Williams nor Kevin Ford needed to use this system in this most decisive vote, since they employed an ordinary absentee ballot, but Expedition 10 Commander Leroy Chiao – the first US astronaut to vote in a presidential election – certainly did in November 2004. In fact, Chiao used his opportunity to extol the virtues of voting. He described it as “each citizen’s most basic, yet most powerful tool for participating in America’s cherished right to choose its leaders”. Four years later, in the presidential stand-off between Barack Obama and John McCain, Expedition 18 Commander Mike Fincke and Flight Engineer Greg Chamitoff did likewise.

Leroy Chiao – the first American astronaut to vote in a presidential election – works outside the International Space Station in January 2005, midway through his six-month Expedition 10 mission. Photo Credit: NASA

At the present time, though, the cynic might wonder: What difference does one or two votes possibly make? And at the present time, the overarching answer might be that, indeed, two votes is not a game-changing number. However, for astronauts to be granted the right to vote their leaders into power – a right which humans have fought and died for over hundreds of generations – makes the entire process a worthy and noble one. Aboard the most remote inhabited human outpost, Sunita Williams and Kevin Ford must feel the warmth of the hearth of home to think that they may be far away, but their views still count. Moreover, State Senator Mike Jackson, whose patch covers Brazoria, Harris and Galveston Counties, and includes the Johnson Space Center, has recalled the significance of every single vote in securing success for a politician.

“I can attest to how important one person’s vote is,” Jackson once said, “because my first election I won by seven votes…out of over 26,000!”

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