Out-of-this-world election: NASA astronauts vote from space

Election officials use passwords, encryption to protect ballots during transmission

Think the long lines, cooling temperatures and legions of political sign holders will make voting a hassle on Tuesday?

Well, try voting from 220 miles above Earth while traveling at 17,500 miles per hour.

That's exactly what two American astronauts will be doing onboard the International Space Station in the next few days. Commander Edward Michael Fincke and Flight Engineer and Science Officer Greg Chamitoff, who are serving on the space station with one Russian cosmonaut, have both received their ballots and have until Tuesday to send them back to Earth.

"We do a lot of things to try to support their stay on the Space Station, which can last six months or more," said Nicole Cloutier, a spokeswoman for the Johnson Space Center. "We certainly don't want to deny them their privilege to vote in this election."

The astronauts even made a 'get out the vote' video from the space station.

Jennifer Ballard, election supervisor for Harris County in Texas, said election officials have been working hand-in-hand with NASA to ensure that the astronauts get to vote, and that their votes remain secure as they are transmitted from outer space to earth.

Ballard said NASA designed a program that allows election officials to upload the ballot, encrypt it and create three different passwords for it. Only the two Texas county clerks involved - one astronaut lives in Harris County and another lives in Brezoria County - and the astronauts have the keys to break the encryption.

The clerks send the digital ballot files to NASA's Johnson Space Center Mission Control Center, which then sends them to the space station. The clerks then email the astronauts directly with their credentials and passwords. The astronauts then send the encrypted ballot back to the clerks through Mission Control.

"Nobody can get into the ballot," said Ballard. "I know because I've tested it. I tested it extensively. You have to have the password to get into the ballot."

A US astronaut onboard the Russian Space Station first voted from space in 1997. Four different astronauts have voted from space before this year.

According to NASA, the passage of a 1997 Texas state bill sets up a technical procedure for astronauts -- nearly all of whom live in Houston -- to vote from space.

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Sharon Gaudin

Sharon Gaudin

Computerworld
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