David Wolf won’t mind waiting in a long line to cast his ballot today.
In 1997, the retired NASA astronaut voted in a local Texas election while he was more than 200 miles above Earth, on the Russian space station Mir. At the time, humans were still trying to figure out how to stay alive in low-Earth orbit; earlier that year, a fire had erupted inside the Mir during a routine procedure, and a cargo probe collided with station when it tried to dock, causing significant damage. Communications from mission control could sometimes take hours to reach the station. There was little time for anything but work.
Wolf doesn’t recall what was on the ballot that year, but he remembers how moved he felt.
“I voted alone up in space, very alone, the only English speaker up there, and it was nice to have an English ballot, something from America,” Wolf told me recently. “It made me feel closer to the Earth and like the people of earth actually cared about me up there.”
Wolf became the first American to vote from space, thanks to legislation in Texas, where most astronauts live, that was signed into law in 1997. Nearly 20 years later, the process for voting from orbit remains the same—and it’s pretty easy. Mission control sends astronauts an encrypted email with an absentee ballot inside. Astronauts fill it out and email it back to Earth, where it reaches a county clerk, who opens the file and writes in the selections on a paper ballot. Only that clerk knows how an astronaut voted. Shane Kimbrough, the only American in space right now, has already voted from the International Space Station (ISS).