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Wednesday, October 29, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Casting The First Absentee Ballot From Space -- Astronaut David Wolf Will Use E-Mail To Vote Under New Texas Law

AP

HOUSTON - A couple hundred miles won't come between astronaut David Wolf and his right to vote.

Thanks to a new Texas law, a ballot has been sent to an American in orbit for the first time.

Lawmakers made the change after John Blaha, the U.S. astronaut on Russia's Mir space station a year ago, couldn't cast a ballot.

Under the old law, an absentee ballot had to be sent by U.S. mail. But in June, Gov. George W. Bush signed a bill saying astronauts registered to vote in Texas - where most of them live - can cast ballots from space.

Using new software developed by NASA, Tony Sirvello, Harris County's elections chief, sent a ballot last week to U.S. flight controllers in Moscow. They transmitted it to Wolf on Mir, 240 miles above Earth.

Wolf, who arrived on the station in September for a four-month stay, will open the e-mail on a laptop computer. He has until 7 p.m. on Nov. 4 - Election Day - to get the ballot back to Sirvello by way of the flight controllers in Russia.

Sirvello will read Wolf's e-mail and punch a ballot by hand with the astronaut's choices.

NASA plans to use similar software once the international space station is up and running. Construction is scheduled to begin next summer.

"There's something about attaching you to the Earth, to be able to vote," Wolf said before he traveled to Mir. "You're still a member of that society, and I think that's an important thing for space travelers."

Wolf will be able to vote for mayor of Houston, six City Council positions and city controller. He can vote on whether to eliminate Houston's affirmative-action program as well as 14 statewide amendments.

There also are three Harris County bond propositions and six city of Houston bond issues on the November ballot.

Voting should help ease the isolation that astronauts on months-long flights typically feel, said Susan Anderson, the voting-from-space project manager at Johnson Space Center.

Blaha, who spent four months on Mir and had to skip last year's presidential election, said the point is to give astronauts the opportunity to exercise their rights as American citizens.

"It's the right thing to do," he said.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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