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How astronauts vote from space: The only American in orbit now explains

Due to COVID-19, voting in the 2020 election is different for many Americans than in years past, with a greater number of absentee ballots (opens in new tab) and early voters (opens in new tab) than ever before. But one American can boast a truly unique experience in casting her ballot. Astronaut Kate Rubins, who has been on the International Space Station since Oct. 14, voted from space a week after she entered orbit. 

In a NASA Q&A (opens in new tab) about the 20th anniversary of humans living on the International Space Station, Rubins described her voting process. "It's actually pretty similar to the process of voting by absentee ballot from home," she said in the video. 

Before launch, Rubins filled out a Federal Postcard Application (opens in new tab) (FPCA). The FPCA is similar to the absentee ballot application many U.S. citizens filled out this year but is used specifically for people who are overseas during the election, such as military members and their families — though at times, depending on the space station's orbit, Rubins isn't technically overseas. 

Video: How to vote from space: NASA astronaut explains how she did it (opens in new tab)
Related: U.S. astronaut votes early from space station (opens in new tab)

Astronaut Kate Rubins votes from the International Space Station. (Image credit: NASA/Twitter)

Most astronauts who vote while in space choose to vote as Texas residents because they move to Houston for training before their mission begins, according to NASA (opens in new tab). A 1997 state law passed in Texas allows for legal voting from space, with an absentee ballot system set for astronauts to vote with the address "low Earth orbit."

Before an astronaut can vote, NASA has to test that the ballot can be filled out. The county clerk sends a test ballot to NASA's Johnson Space Center (opens in new tab) in Houston and a space station training computer tests whether someone is able to fill the ballot out and send it back to the clerk. 

If the ballot passes the test, the real ballot is encrypted and sent to the astronaut on the International Space Station (opens in new tab). The clerk also sends credentials specific to the voting crew member for security in opening the ballot. The astronaut then fills it out electronically and sends it by email back down to the county clerk to record the vote. The clerk also has a password to ensure they're the only person who can open the email. 

Like those of us on Earth, a voting astronaut must send in their vote by 7 p.m. Central Time on election day for the vote to count. 

Although it's not an official part of the process, Rubins created her own voting booth on board the space station. She closed the door on her crew quarters and put up a hand-written sign that said "ISS Voting Booth." 

"It's our small little area where we sleep and have our computer," she said in the video. "It's a private area on the space station and it seems like it would be about the right size for a voting booth back down at home."

This isn't the first time Rubins has voted from space. She was also on the space station during the presidential election in 2016. 

Follow Kasandra Brabaw on Twitter @KassieBrabaw. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook. 

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Kasandra Brabaw is a freelance science writer who covers space, health, and psychology. She's been writing for since 2014, covering NASA events, sci-fi entertainment, and space news. In addition to, Kasandra has written for Prevention, Women's Health, SELF, and other health publications. She has also worked with academics to edit books written for popular audiences.