Someday, Someone Will Commit a Major Crime in Space

Before that happens, we need to figure out how to handle it.

An astronaut in handcuffs, surrounded by stars
Natalie Matthews-Ramo/Slate

Add the word space before any mundane word, and suddenly it becomes way sexier. Space law. Space marriage and babies. Space archaeology! And most recently, in the news: space crime.

Dozens of news stories have speculated on what could have been the world’s first-ever space crime. In a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission and a letter to NASA, Summer Worden accused her estranged partner, astronaut Anne McClain, of identity theft. The two agree that McClain accessed Worden’s bank account while aboard the International Space Station. But McClain’s lawyer claims this is something McClain had always done throughout the couple’s relationship, and that McClain “strenuously denies that she did anything improper.” Authorities are still investigating the case.

As far as space crimes go, this scenario is pretty tame. Identity theft shouldn’t be taken lightly, but no one in this situation was in immediate danger—Worden doesn’t even suggest that McClain used or moved funds around—and thanks to an intergovernmental agreement signed in 1998 to support the International Space Station, it was obvious that the U.S. has jurisdiction in this situation. That agreement “makes very clear that if a crime is committed on the station, if it does not affect any other party. It remains the jurisdiction of the nation who committed the crime,” says Michelle Hanlon, a professor of air and space law at the University of Mississippi.

But given what we know about human behavior on Earth, there’s no reason we won’t also act poorly in space. Space crime seems poised to get a lot messier. “There are going to be crimes and instances of negligence, and we don’t have a system to deal with that yet,” says Hanlon. We have some guidelines written into existing space law, but in their current form, they’re loose suggestions more than functioning policy.

Say, for instance, a crime on the space station does affect another party—things get more complicated. “If Astronaut A from Country A stole a watch from Astronaut B from Country B, and it happened in a part of the ISS that belonged to Country C, then it’s a lot less clear,” Hanlon says. (The space station contains modules from NASA as well as the Russian, Japanese, and European space agencies.) The current space station agreement simply says that all affected countries will talk to each other and negotiate a solution. That seems reasonable with the space programs we currently have, where the small number of astronauts heading to the space station are highly vetted, and criminal accusations are infrequent enough that they can be considered on a case-by-case basis.

But once space tourism takes off, these guidelines are not going to hold up for long. The space station agreement, as you might guess, only applies to the International Space Station, and if private companies launch their own shuttles and bases, the process for determining jurisdiction is even murkier. Let’s consider the same watch-stealing example, but with citizens aboard a private space hotel. Civilian A from Country A accuses Civilian B from Country B of stealing her watch, in an incident that allegedly occurred in a pod built by Country C that’s part of a spacecraft licensed and launched by Country D. Technically, according to the Outer Space Treaty, nation-states claim responsibility for spacecraft they launch or sponsor, as well as any damage they may cause. But there’s no law that specifically governs human behavior in space. That means that technically Country D would be responsible for determining next steps here—but countries A and B might have a problem with that, and the whole thing could quickly devolve into a bureaucratic nightmare.

Consider, also, that crime often goes beyond stealing watches. Though there are no recorded severe space crimes, there have been incidents in other high-pressure, isolated environments, like the Antarctic researcher who, after six months at the isolated base, stabbed a colleague (though initial reports that he did it because the co-worker kept spoiling the endings of books seem to have been inaccurate). Exercises merely designed to simulate outer space have also spurred crime. In the late 1990s, when the Russian Institute of Biomedical Problems held experiments to replicate 110 days aboard Mir , astronauts did not behave themselves. “Two Russian astronauts reportedly committed battery, assault and attempted murder, and one of them—the Russian commander—sexually assaulted and harassed [Canadian astronaut] Judith Lapierre,” law professor Julian Hermida wrote in a 2006 paper about crimes in space. “Previously, that same day, the Russian commander assaulted a Russian male astronaut. … At a later day, another Russian astronaut had to hide the knives in the station’s kitchen because the same two Russian astronauts that had fought previously threatened to kill each other.”

In his paper, Hermida also mysteriously hints at “similar deviant acts … in other outer space missions” that have been “kept highly confidential.” He doesn’t go into greater detail, but space lawyer Thomas Gangale told me about an old rumor that illustrates the possibility of perfect crimes among space travelers. The story, he says, is that two cosmonauts were on a spacewalk, also called an “extravehicular activity,” or EVA, during the Salyut or Mir era of the space program. “One cosmonaut was so pissed off at another that during an EVA, one of the guys got untethered and was in danger of floating off beyond the point where he could be retrieved, and his crewmate just kind of let him drift off for a while before snatching his tether line at the last second,” he said. Gangale feels like the story might have some legs—his late wife spent a lot of time around Russian researchers who coordinated with the space agency, but of course, take this all with many a grain of salt. Still, he says, “if it’s true, this shows how even among highly trained professionals on a long-duration mission, feelings can run high.”

It’d be smart to get to work on establishing rules before a major space crime is committed. Gangale likens it to earthquakes in California: “We know it’s coming, but we just don’t know what to do about it yet.” There might be opportunities to entirely reform our criminal justice system, but it’s more likely that we’ll just adapt terrestrial laws to handle space crime. Explicitly declaring that human rights apply in space could be a first step, Hanlon suggests, or laying out other explicit rights: to oxygen, for instance, since lack of it would be certain death, or rights to outside communication, lest a spaceship commander cut off passengers’ abilities to call for help. As for what happens to a suspect in space, that’s a toss-up; there’s currently no space jail, and given how current spacecraft are designed, it’d be difficult to designate any particular area as an isolation chamber, the way sci-fi movie protagonists must when their crewmates are infected with alien viruses.

As a model of how new policies could be coordinated, Hanlon points to how quickly the international community rallied around the budding airline industry. In the mid-1940s, aviation experts formed both the International Civil Aviation Organization and International Air Transport Association to set up safety and communications standards, create processes for investigating accidents and complaints, and set up caps for liability to protect air carriers. The organizations’ policies have faced criticism, but it’s an example that shows how nations can unite to create international standards and enforce them. “We need to have that kind of system in place for space tourism as well,” says Hanlon.

Perhaps McClain’s case is a wake-up call to prepare for the inevitable. “It reminds us all that astronauts aren’t perfect,” says Hanlon. (Another reminder that astronauts aren’t perfect: the infamous love triangle that ended with one astronaut driving hundreds of miles in a diaper to confront her rival.) “And the civilians that we send up are going to be far less perfect than astronauts.”

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.