The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) reported that it was investigating the first ever instance of a crime committed in space. United States astronaut Anne McClain allegedly improperly accessed the bank account of her spouse, Summer Worden, from a computer registered to NASA while aboard the International Space Station (ISS). McClain denied the allegations, but the incident brings up an interesting legal issue:
If McClain committed a crime while beyond the territory of the United States, and in fact beyond the territorial limits of the entire Earth, what rule of law governs her actions?
In outer space, astronauts are generally seen as representatives of humanity and their actions are undertaken in the broader name of mankind, in accordance with the rules and principles of international law. An “astronaut” is defined in the
That’s One Small Step for…Space Crime?
Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (entered into force on October 10, 1967), more commonly known as the “Outer Space Treaty”, one of five United Treaties on outer space, in which contracting State Parties have identified provisions and guidelines for managing space debris and liability for damaged caused by space objects, regulations for objects launched into space, and principles related to remote sensing of the earth, among other critical topics.
Just like the traditional laws of the sea would require: astronauts must be helped, rescued or assisted, regardless of their their nationality or origin.
But what does that legally mean for the nationality and jurisdiction of an astronaut?
From an international law perspective, outer space (including the moon and other celestial bodies) cannot be nationally appropriated by claim of sovereignty or occupation. (The Outer Space Treaty, Article II). Similarly, the International Space Station (ISS) was a joint project by the United States, Russia, Japan, Europe, and Canada. Ownership and use of the space station is also jointly established by multiple intergovernmental treaties and agreements.
Pursuant to Article VIII of the the Outer Space Treaty, each treaty country retains jurisdiction and control over its own personnel while in outer space. This means that astronauts are subject to laws based on their country of citizenship. Therefore, while McClain is aboard the ISS, as a U.S. citizen and astronaut of the U.S., any potential crimes she would commit would be governed by the laws of the United States (which does have quite a few federal laws that prohibit unauthorized access to bank accounts and financial records).
NASA’s investigation is currently ongoing, so it remains to be seen whether astronaut McClain has committed a crime under U.S. law or not, and whether this dispute will mark one small step for mankind as the first crime committed in space.
For more information on international space law, visit: