Everything that happens in space is generally considered to be a “first.” While we’ve no confirmed verification of it, there’s probably even been a first sex act in space. What we haven’t had is the first crime in space … until now. The spouse of an astronaut is accusing her of stealing her identity while serving on the International Space Station and using it to illegally access her bank account while the couple is in the process of getting divorced. Who is responsible for policing space? NASA? The FBI? Interpol? The Space Force? Robocop? And who is responsible for handling the ensuing personal scandal that the accusation brought to light? NASA? Dr. Phil? Oprah?
“Just because it’s in space doesn’t mean it’s not subject to law.”
Mark Sundahl, director of the Global Space Law Center at Cleveland State University, told The New York Times he believes this crime in space is unprecedented. The accused is astronaut Anne McClain, who was onboard the ISS from December 3, 2018, to June 24, 2019, and achieved a bit of space notoriety when the first all-female spacewalk she was scheduled to be part of had to be scrapped due to a lack of two spacesuits small enough for women.
The accuser is Summer Worden, a former Air Force intelligence officer, who married McClain in 2014, filed for divorce in 2018 and complained to NASA in 2019 that McClain had sent her threatening emails and accessed her files illegally from space. The complaint was reported last week in The New York Times, effectively outing McClain and making her the first known gay astronaut of either sex. Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, was also gay but that was not revealed until after her death.
“The more we go out there and spend time out there, all the things we do here are going to happen in space.”
Sundahl certainly is right about that, although it appears NASA isn’t too happy about either the alleged identity theft nor the outing. McClain’s attorney says his client did nothing wrong, and the astronaut was interviewed under oath by the inspector general, where she explained that accessing Worden’s bank accounts was something she’s always done while away in order to make sure Worden had the finances available to care for their six-year-old child – a child they’re now fighting for custody of. McClain is a decorated Army pilot who flew over 800 combat hours in Operation Iraqi Freedom and is on a list of candidates NASA is considering to be the first woman on the moon. Worden is a former Air Force intelligence officer, so she should know about breaking into accounts and crimes. This sounds like an epic space crime battle the likes of which has never been fought before. Where will it take place and who will be the judge?
According to a 2014 interview with NASA engineer and instructor Robert Frost, the question first goes to the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. In Article VIII of the treaty states that:
“A State Party to the Treaty on whose registry an object launched into outer space is carried shall retain jurisdiction and control over such object, and over any personnel thereof, while in outer space or on a celestial body.”
That governs a spacecraft where all of the crew members are from the nation that launched it. However, the ISS has its own rule because its crew members come from so many different countries. For a crime committed there, we turn to an Intergovernmental Agreement signed by all parties in 1998. With regard to criminal conduct, it states:
“Canada, the European Partner States, Japan, Russia, and the United States may exercise criminal jurisdiction over personnel in or on any flight element who are their respective nationals.”
So the nation of the accused has jurisdiction over him or her. But which court would handle it? Worden filed her complaint with the Federal Trade Commission while McClain works for NASA. Based on how things have been going lately in lower courts, should this case go right to the Supremes?
Or higher? Oprah?
The universe is waiting to find out.