The first alleged crime in space raises questions about job jurisdiction

NASA is currently investigating what could be considered the first crime in space after one of the office's astronauts was accused of illegal access to her wife's bank account during her stay at the international space station. Investigators have yet to decide whether the event actually constitutes a crime, but this case raises questions about how we should deal with criminal activities in space in the future.


For the past 50 years, most people who have flown into space are representatives of the governments of their countries, such as NASA astronauts or Russian cosmonauts. Usually, these space-bound crew members have shown model behavior in space, without major conflicts in orbit. Their destinations have also been government-controlled facilities, some of which have fairly clear rules on how to deal with any type of criminal behavior should this occur.

But nation states no longer have the only sovereignty over space. Some private companies work actively to send paying tourists into the room, either for a few short minutes to experience weightlessness or to stay in hotel habitats for a long time. While the space opens up for a larger number of people, the behavior that occurs here on earth will also take place above the earth. "The things that people don't stop when we end up in orbit," says Michelle Hanlon, associate director of the air and space science program at the University of Mississippi, The edge.

At present there is no detailed framework for dealing with criminal disputes that occur in space on commercial vehicles, especially if problems arise between individuals from different countries. "As more private actors begin to go into space and see them stay on a commercial space station for any kind of duration, we need to look at how we approach criminal jurisdiction for even minor crime," Jessica Sweeney Noble, a space lawyer for Nanoracks, says The edge.

The current case that NASA is investigating must not cause legal problems. Summer Maken accused her estranged wife, NASA astronaut Anne McClain, of accessing the bank account of Maken without permission from the ISS, where McClain lived for six months, according to a report The New York Times. McClain claims it was a routine event to ensure that the couple had enough money to pay their bills. The legal dispute is still obscure and appears to be embroiled in a deeply personal divorce that McClain did not want to pass on to the media. But it seems fairly clear what type of law will be used to oversee this problem. "In addition to the fact that this happened while she was in space, this is a completely American issue, which falls entirely under US law," says Hanlon.

The signatories to the IGA, signed in 1998
Image: NASA

The International Space Station is governed by an international treaty called it Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) on cooperation between space stations. The document contains a small section about criminal jurisdiction. It states very clearly that every country involved in the ISS has criminal jurisdiction over its own space personnel, as long as this does not affect someone from another country. Both McClain and Toen are American citizens, which makes it clear that American laws would apply here.

However, it would have been harder if this complaint had been submitted by an international partner on board the ISS. If a dispute arises in a job between two members of different countries, the two governments should consult each other and find out what type of law to use. But there is a time limit for how long countries can argue about jurisdiction. If they cannot reach an agreement after three months, the alleged victim's government is declared competent if the alleged offender refuses to cooperate in the negotiations.


But what would the protocol be if this was an incident on a commercial space station? That's when the law starts to get more complicated. The US legal obligations for space are all laid down in a document called the Outer Space Treaty, a more than 50-year agreement between 109 countries that provides guidelines for the peaceful exploration of space. The treaty is very clear that governments are responsible for what their commercial companies and private entities do in space. The document notes that each nation has "jurisdiction and control" over every registered object launched into space, as well as over any personnel. That means the US has jurisdiction over everything that American tourists do in space.

To meet their treaty obligations, the United States has devised a special provision of the American Code to address issues of criminal behavior that can occur in space and in other questionable areas. Known as the & # 39; special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States,"It deals with how criminal complaints can be handled outside the jurisdiction of a country. For example, if an American citizen were to attack someone on a commercial space station, this special kind of jurisdiction would be introduced.

However, this special maritime law usually includes more heinous crimes, such as "murder, manslaughter, mutilation, abduction, rape, assault and theft," the Justice Department said. For less serious offenses, such as hacking or identity theft, it is unclear whether this would apply exactly. The law also becomes more turbid if there is an incident involving several people from several countries. For example, if someone from the US is injured in a private Japanese space hotel, along with other passengers from Spain and Singapore, it is unclear how to proceed. But because of the Outer Space treaty, many governments may have to participate. "Suddenly you have involved all these nations, because it is all rising to the national level immediately under our current cosmic space law," says Hanlon.

A prototype of one of the proposed habitats of Bigelow Aerospace
Image: Bigelow Aerospace

That is why Hanlon says it is time for the international community to come together to discuss how to deal with these cases that can occur on commercial space stations and spacecraft. She argues that private companies that intend to transport people to space should have contracts with very specific provisions that specify which legislation applies when there is criminal behavior, negligence and more. In this way, companies have a plan to ensure that all countries adhere to the Outer Space treaty if there is any form of allegation. "Having a framework based on sovereign activities is not logical," says Hanlon. "And we cannot keep going back to diplomatic and sovereign solutions for very daily human problems."

The IGA could be a good model to work from, Hanlon says, and perhaps the United Nations could come up with a kind of resolution that specifically addresses this issue. And now is perhaps the best time, because ambitious space projects are on the way. Companies such as Bigelow Aerospace, Sierra Nevada Corporation, Lockheed Martin, Axiom and more have developed concepts for space areas that could potentially be used for tourism. SpaceX has suggested sending people around the moon and to the surface of the moon to start a base. It is unclear how long it takes for these concepts to develop, but they may be closer than we think.

“People think that the concept of a human community outside of this earth is hundreds and hundreds of years away. And it really isn't, "says Hanlon, adding:" We really have the ability to do this well and promote peace through individual behavior. "