First space crime inspires questions over International Space Laws

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Summer Worden filed a case in court against astronaut, Anne McClain, who is stationed at the International Space Station. The case instantly took off and became a talking point to potentially becoming the first crime committed in space.

Worden accused her estranged wife, NASA astronaut Anne McClain, of accessing her personal bank account without permission from a NASA-affiliated computer aboard the ISS, where McClain was living for six months.

Currently, the alleged space invasion of privacy is being investigated by NASA’s Office of the Inspector General.

McClain, who was stationed aboard the ISS from December 2018 to June 2019, acknowledged that she accessed Worden’s bank account while she was away. She also acknowledged that she had previously used the same username and password to access Worden’s account to make sure there was enough money to provide for their son. However, in a statement on Twitter, McClain denied any wrongdoing. 

“There’s unequivocally no truth to these claims,” McClain tweeted. She added that she and her spouse, who were married in 2014 and filed for divorce in 2018, were in the midst of a “painful, personal separation that’s now unfortunately in the media.”

McClain claims that it was a routine occurrence, to make sure that the couple had enough money to pay their bills.

Worden, a reported former Air Force intelligence officer, filed an identity theft complaint to the Federal Trade Commission against McClain. Her parents later filed a complaint with NASA’s Inspector General in June.

Apparently, the following legal action was done out of spite. The court has agreed to allow McClain visitation rights to Worden’s six-year-old son. Worden also detailed in an interview that McClain became increasingly demanding about visiting the child as their divorce carried on.

NASA, meanwhile, praised McClain’s career and declined to weigh in on the allegations.

“Lt. Col. Anne McClain has an accomplished military career, flew combat missions in Iraq and is one of NASA’s top astronauts,” NASA officials said in a statement to Space.com. “She did a great job on her most recent NASA mission aboard the International Space Station. Like with all NASA employees, NASA does not comment on personal or personnel matters.”

Though the allegation is seriously being considered, it pokes at the idea of what law constitutes and presides over cases involving people who did the alleged crime on the ISS or farther yet, space in general.

The founding nations of the ISS planned for legal methods in these scenarios, setting a legal framework that gives each nation jurisdiction over their respective parts of the station.

Right now, the International Space Station (ISS) is governed by an international treaty called the Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) on Space Station Cooperation.

The treaty includes ways to work around criminal jurisdiction onboard the ISS and on how the sovereignty presides towards crime committed by personnel in space.

In other words, an alleged crime committed by a U.S. astronaut using a NASA computer would be prosecuted by the relevant U.S. authorities back on Earth. Both McClain and Worden are US citizens, which makes it clear that American laws would apply here.

However, a question then proceeds to consider the possibility of a crime involving two people coming from different countries, or three or more people of different nationalities.

The last question is not a far reality, especially with how aggressive commercial space companies are trying to send paying tourists to space — where any nation or state has zero sole sovereignty. 

So far, space exploration has been quite peaceful. This is because of the selective process in choosing exceptional people to send to space.

However, as we proceed into the future — where more and more people start to gain access to the cosmos — not everyone can be with exceptional character.

Right now, there isn’t a detailed legislative framework on how to handle criminal disputes that occur in space or commercial vehicles, especially if issues arise between individuals from separate nations. 

The International community should sooner or later discuss establishing a formal way to address disputes that occur in space. 

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