This week, Shane Kimbrough cast his vote from space. The astronaut is the sole American on the International Space Station, keeping democracy alive 250 miles above Earth.
His right to do so is guaranteed by a Texas law, passed in 1997. And the same law would apply even if Kimbrough were way further out, say on Mars. But that’s only because he, like all other NASA astronauts, lives near Johnson Space Center in Houston. If Elon Musk fulfills his promise for a multi-million person Martian settlement, the law is going to need revisiting to handle all the Americans whose Earthly residences are (were?) outside the Lone Star State.
The first American voted from space in 1997, just after the Texas law was passed. David Wolf was aboard the Russian Mir space station. He, like every astronaut after, identified the elections he would be spaceborne for well ahead of time—since crew members might launch before the election commission knew all the issues and candidates on the absentee ballot.
Once the ballot is nailed down, the Houston County Clerk delivers it to Johnson Space Center’s mission control, who uplink it to the ISS electronically. “The astronaut then gets a special code from the clerk’s office that lets them access their personal ballot,” says Daniel Huot, a spokesperson for NASA’s Johnson Space Center. “Then they send it back to mission control, who delivers it back to the county clerk office.”
And that’s not the only civic duty astronauts can perform in space: NASA also has procedures in place so they can pay taxes. Astronauts are, however, exempt from jury duty. “I don’t know how high that ranks on the list,” says Huot. “But there’s a lot of good reasons to go to space besides getting out of jury duty.” Speak for yourself, man.
Civic-minded Martian-Americans are going to either need to register in Texas before liftoff, or pressure the government to make new laws that allow any citizen to vote from the vacuum. “There’s a whole world of space legislature that will need to be revisited as we begin living in space more permanently,” says Huot.
Like, what happens when Martian settlements become permanent? Do their citizens still have a right to vote in US elections? Do their children? If the settlers came from states outside Texas, their home jurisdiction would first have to come up with some similar laws allowing them to transmit and receive ballots from the void. And their kids would be given citizenship, just like children born abroad to diplomats and military are today.
All that starts to get foggy once you look into the future. “The real question here is: Is the human future in space?” says Scott Pace, director of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute. It’s not too hard to imagine third or fourth generation Martians getting fed up with politicking on a blue dot millions of miles away. Maybe they’ll start dumping Tang into Schiaparelli Crater and declare their independence.
Their ability to do so depends on two things: “One, are they able to live off the land, or do they rely on supplies from Earth? And two, are they able to earn money out there, or are they always being paid on the taxpayers nickel?,” says Pace. If no to both, then space is like Mt. Everest: a place for adventure and symbolism, but not to live. It could be like Antarctica—you can live there, but not make money. Or like an oil platform—you can make money, but you can’t live. In any of those scenarios, it’s pretty unlikely that spacefarers will be able to successfully declare independence.
In a yes/yes situation, the settlers are fully independent, and they may indeed decide to secede from Earthly affairs. But that doesn’t mean they won’t have democracy. “We need to ask now if we want the space community that engages in the democratic process, and make that happen because it won’t happen naturally,” says Pace. In space, no one can hear you scream, but they should be able to hear you whine about how fed up you are with politicians.