In November of 2007, Clayton Anderson participated in the most ordinary of elections—voting on a handful of local ballot proposals for his Houston suburb. But Anderson cast his ballot in an extraordinary fashion. He was traveling at 17,000 miles per hour, floating in microgravity at more than 200 miles above Earth.
The vote made Anderson one of a handful of astronauts who have voted from beyond the reaches of Earth's atmosphere, both on the International Space Station and Russia's Mir station.
"To be able to hit the button and send it and know that it was coming from outer space to go to somebody down on the Earth through that process—that was pretty cool," Anderson said.
For Anderson, the process held special meaning. His wife, Susan Anderson, was the NASA leader who headed the 1997 effort to allow astronauts to vote from space—a year before her husband was chosen to be an astronaut and a decade before he went into orbit. "We could only dream that I would be able to use that capability," he said.
In the 1990s, American astronauts began making trips to Mir, a departure from the short-duration space shuttle flights that had defined the decade before and preparation for the soon-to-launch ISS. One astronaut, John Blaha, launched to Mir in September of 1996, long before absentee ballots were sent out. As the election date neared, he realized he would have no way of casting a vote. He couldn't hop down for Election Day, and the Post Office couldn't exactly bring him a mail ballot.
Blaha's orbital disenfranchisement galvanized officials on the ground. "That was the defining moment," Susan Anderson said. "He got asked, 'Were you able to vote in space?'… There was no process for him to be able to vote."
NASA sprung into action, with Anderson leading a team that worked with Texas lawmakers (most astronauts live in the Houston area) to give astronauts a loophole. "They needed the chance to be able to vote if they chose to," she said. "[Lawmakers] were on board with it.… They helped push a bill through that said that we could accept an encrypted file from the space station."
Then-Governor George W. Bush signed the bill into law, and a year later, David Wolf became the first astronaut to cast a vote from space. Since then, most election years have seen a ballot or two beamed down from Americans in orbit, and the clerks in Harris or Galveston counties have dutifully tallied the result.
"It's a PDF of the ballot that we send to them," said Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart. "It's the same ballot than anyone would get by mail." The astronauts get the ballot in email form, sent in an encoded document that only they and the clerk can open. Once they send in their vote, the clerk hand-copies their selection and submits a standard ballot as a proxy.
"Even in the small elections, people will participate," Stanart said. "They're making a statement that voting is important to them."
Leroy Chiao, who voted from ISS in the 2004 presidential election, echoed that sentiment. "Part of being an astronaut is trying to serve as a good example, so the more we can do to encourage citizens to go out and vote, the better off we'll be," he said. "If this guy can vote from space, I ought to go down to my local polling place."
Chiao even cut a public service announcement urging Americans down below to get out and vote.
Two years later, Michael Lopez-Alegria cast his space ballot in the 2006 midterms. "It says a lot about the importance that we give to the democratic process in this country," he said. "It's not necessarily easy to make that happen. They had to have a law passed; they went to great lengths."
NASA spokesman Dan Huot said all the credit belongs to the astronauts. "It does speak volumes to their commitment to not just their mission but to the greater mission that we're all partaking in as U.S. citizens," he said.
Astronauts don't wait until Election Day to become engaged voters either. While ISS didn't have real-time Internet until recently, past astronauts were able to request their favorite news sources, which would be uploaded on a delay. Anderson read the Houston Chronicle and a local newspaper in League City, Texas, and he spent his workouts watching NBC Nightly News.
Lopez-Alegria would spend his treadmill time watching The PBS NewsHour.
"We didn't have Internet access, so we couldn't go look at the news, but we would get news summaries sent up to us," Chiao said. "We were able to keep up pretty well."
For the astronauts, casting a ballot was more than a fulfillment of democracy's every-vote-counts mantra. It was also a connection to home, one Anderson compared to soldiers overseas getting to watch football games or past troops—including his father—watching Bob Hope performances in Korea.
"It's important that even when we're in space we're still citizens of the United States and citizens of our local communities," he said. "Anything they can do to make life when you're in space seem more like when you were living on Earth is important. Psychologically it gives you a connectivity to what's going on back on the ground, so that you don't feel totally devoid of what's transpiring beneath you."
NASA hasn't yet revealed its astronauts' voting plans for the upcoming election—Americans Reid Wiseman and Barry Wilmore will be onboard the space station—but Stanart said at least one has made plans to vote through his office.
And while astronauts will continue voting from orbit for the foreseeable future, NASA's Mars ambitions—if realized—could see astronauts voting from the Red Planet by the 2030s. "You might even see one day the first person to vote from Mars," Huot said. "I would not be surprised at all."
That astronaut shouldn't wait until the last minute to vote, Clayton Anderson joked, thanks to the 20-minute communications delay between that planet and ours. "You'd have to vote a little early, because the time delay might get you," he said.