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Astronaut to cast his ballot from 240 miles above Earth

For the first time in history, an astronaut is about to exercise his right to vote while in orbit.

A ballot has been sent to David Wolf aboard the Russian space station Mir, thanks to a new Texas law. It was prompted by John Blaha's inability to vote from Mir last year.

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 J. Sirvello III, Harris County's elections chief, sent a ballot last week to U.S. flight controllers in Moscow, and they transmitted it to Wolf 240 miles above Earth.

The 41-year-old doctor and engineer, 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. CST on Tuesday, Election Day, to get the ballot back to Sirvello via the flight controllers in Russia.

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

"He's lost that one bit of secrecy, but that's a give-and-take situation to where that's the only way he can vote," Sirvello said. "No one else will know other than myself."

NASA plans to use similar software once the international space station is up and running. Assembly of the station begins 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 get to vote for mayor of Houston, six City Council positions and city controller. He can also vote on whether to end Houston's affirmative action program.

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.

"It opens another door of support to him to make him feel he has the capability of doing things in space that he could do at home," she said.

Blaha, who spent four months on Mir, said the point is to give astronauts the opportunity to exercise their rights as Americans.

"I think it's the right thing to do," he said. "As far as helping out in the space program and making someone in orbit feel more connected and helping out the psychological difficulties of long-duration spaceflight, I would say no, it's not a big player. But that wasn't the objective."