Let us study for this new space law article the possibility of the first crime in space, maybe committed recently by astronaut Anne McClain. Crimes related to the space industry or space domain in general can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Indeed, space-related offenses are quite rare, as it is still a domain restricted from the general public. However, in 2019, a news made the headlines due to its surprising novelty.
In August 2019, the NASA astronaut Anne McClain has been accused of committing a crime in outer space. McClain would have tried to access the bank accounts of her former spouse without her authorization. The astronaut was accused of identity theft and of improper non authorized access to financial records. As a result of several things she did not understand, Summer Worden, McClain’s former spouse, asked her bank to find the locations of the computer that had access to her bank account using her login name. Surprisingly enough, the unknown computer was one registered to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Worden explained that it was actually Anne McClain from the International Space Station (ISS) that had tried to access her bank account. Worden then filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission and her family later filed a complaint with NASA’s Office of Inspector general. Following this accusation and complaints, Anne McClain expressed her willingness to fully cooperate with the authorities and stated that she would answer truthfully to every question. She was then heard by a senior NASA official and by investigators from the Inspector General’s office in order to understand the situation, unravel the true from the false and hear what McClain had to say about it. The astronaut acknowledged and admitted having tried to access her former spouse’s bank accounts.
However, her defense line is based on the argument whereby watching over the joint account is something that she would usually do on a regular basis and that she just wanted to check on the finances in order to make sure Worden had sufficient funds to provide for her son’s care and to pay bills. She explained that it was purely based on a routine and that she did not have any bad intentions. Eventually, McClain did not carry out any financial transaction but the trial will revolve around the question of knowing if she did not carry out any financial transaction because she had no intention to do so or because she ran out of time, unable to complete a financial or any particular operation.
Several precedent cases have already taken place, space-related offenses are not unknown. In 2011, when a space engineer’s widow tried to sell a Moon rock, NASA organized an operation in order to prevent it. And in 2013, a Russian satellite was damaged after colliding with debris from a satellite that China had destroyed in a 2007 missile test. But this case is actually the first time that a violation was committed in outer space by a human being.
What are the legal basis on which this violation should be treated? The laws set on Earth continue to be applied even if one of the people concerned is on a mission in outer space. Actually, procedures have already been established. A Treaty named the Intergovernmental Agreement on Space Station Cooperation governs the International Space Station (ISS) and every jurisdictional questions that might arise. The five States which are involved in the International Space Station (Russia, Japan, Europe, Canada and the United States of America) signed this Treaty. According to it, if a crime is committed on the International Space Station (ISS), the country whose national was involved has criminal jurisdiction, unless people from other countries were affected. As Anne McClain is American and her actions affected only American citizens, the dispute will entirely fall under the American jurisdiction and law.
Space law is a relatively new field of law. According to the Washington Post, it can be defined as a field composed of both domestic and international agreements, as well as guidelines that govern issues such as space exploration, military and weapons use, and liability for damage. While it’s definitely a field that is growing and will continue to grow at an increasing pace, it’s still a niche domain. Furthermore, the law concerning reprehensible actions realized by human beings is even narrower. Indeed, space exploration began only a few decades ago, but it was only recently that human beings arrived there permanently and on a regular basis. And still, this only affects a handful of people, at least for now.
This dispute can be seen as quite easy, as it involves people from the same nationality, but it being probably the first crime committed in space raises questions concerning the development of space law. Thus, will it be possible to create a unified international space law which shall be applied in spite of the nationality? Or will each State want to create its own law? In this situation, if a crime happens in space and that multiple nationalities are involved, which law will be destined to be applied? All of these questions will need to be resolved and quite quickly as missions destined for human beings to make a comeback on the Moon are becoming more and more precise, and as a mission to explore Mars has left the realm of dreams to enter the one of reality. Longer distance and trips will be involved, different nationalities with different cultures as well.
Space law in general should be developed in the future years, as more and more conflicts in this genre are inevitable. The development of space tourism will surely be the main cause of the development of the space law. Already in 2017, an Austrian business man had sued a space tourism agency in order to retrieve his deposit for a trip that never took place. As Mark Sundahl explained: “The more we go out there and spend time out there, all the things we do here are going to happen in space”. As for now, no news was given on the outcome of the case. The investigation is surely following its course and it will decide if the matter should be examined by the judicial field or not.