Outlaws in Outer Space: What Happens if a Crime is Committed Above the Stratosphere?

By Rachel Grainger Puryear, the Free Range Lawyer

Outer space image.

Outer space. Its beauty and mystery never ceases to inspire wonder in us Earthbound humans. The night sky in dark, remote areas is nothing short of awesome and amazing. So far, only a select few people have ever gotten a closer look at what is up there. Gradually, astronauts and other scientists are discovering more and more about our universe. As this has occurred over recent decades, laws have developed around human conduct in space, via international treaties.

Landscape with Milky Way. Night sky with stars and silhouette of a standing happy man on the mountain.

Humans have a natural tendency to get into arguments and to misbehave. We will do that anywhere we go. Therefore, with humans further exploring space, the question was bound to come up eventually: What on earth happens when someone commits a crime in space?

Some might have thought that the matter of crime in space was light years ahead of where we are now. But in fact, one person is suspected of committing the first crime in space.

American astronaut Anne McClain has recently made headlines after she was alleged to have committed identity theft against her estranged wife while aboard the International Space Station. NASA has launched an investigation of the matter, and it is still pending. McClain denies that her conduct was unlawful. If McClain is found to have broken the law, however, then this incident would be the first ever Earthling crime in space.

Here is more about McClain’s story:


In McClain’s matter, she and her estranged wife are both Americans. McClain’s questioned acts occurred within the American-governed section of the International Space Station. The Intergovernmental Agreement on Space Station Cooperation – signed by the various nations who control different parts of the International Space Station – provides that each of the countries has jurisdiction over matters arising in their part of the International Space Station, and among their nationals. Therefore, American authorities and courts will handle the matter.

International Space Station orbiting around the Earth.

However, what would happen if a crime or legal dispute occurred in space where multiple countries were involved – either between citizens of different countries, and/or a matter involving a citizen of one country and the territory of another country?

There is no outer space tribunal, nor is there any court in the world with exclusive jurisdiction over all legal matters in outer space. However, fortunately for us Earthlings, jurisdiction regarding areas not consistently inhabited is not an alien concept. We have precedents for handling legal matters arising in territories which are not governed by any one country. Airspace is regulated by aviation laws. Maritime law regulates the high seas. The Antarctic Treaty System regulates Antartica.

Given the limited human activity which has occurred in space so far, legal developments have also been limited, but do exist. So far, the five major multinational treaties which regulate outer space include: the Outer Space Treaty, the Moon Agreement, the Registration Convention, the Rescue Agreement, and the Liability Convention. Many, but not all countries in the world have signed on to some or all of these treaties. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 – perhaps the mothership of outer space law – has been signed by most countries including the U.S., and includes provisions banning nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction from being used in outer space – good call.

So long as outer space remains not permanently inhabited by Earthlings, laws regulating outer space will probably develop much like those aforementioned of areas of Earth not permanently inhabited. However, if colonies open up in outer space for the long term, there will be a need for them to form their own jurisdictions to handle most legal matters arising within the territory of the colony. Given that such colonies would foreseeably still depend on supplies provided by those on Earth, at least for awhile; they would still need to answer to someone on Earth, at least to some extent, and could not be totally independent. Exactly how such colony development would play out legally and politically, remains to be seen.

So if a permanent colony opened up on another celestial body and had an independent court system (not contradicting existing treaties), their own court systems could handle legal disputes, rather than Earth court systems.

One more thing: Given the vastly different weather, temperature, and other environmental conditions in outer space and on other celestial bodies; examining crime scenes in outer space and determining facts gleaned from them could get very interesting. Perhaps the forensics field will eventually include specialties for beyond Earth!

As always, dear readers, thank you for following me. I hope you enjoyed this, and learned something valuable.

** Got a legal subject or question you are curious about? Email it to me at admin@freerangelaw.net. Your question may be discussed in a future blog post!

Please note that the above is offered for educational purposes, and as a means of encouraging intellectual curiosity about the law. The information presented may not take into account every exception, variation, or complication which could apply to someone’s legal matters. Accordingly, nothing in this post or blog is ever intended as, nor should be construed by or relied upon by anyone, as legal advice. If you need legal advice, please consult an attorney who can give you assistance specific to your needs.


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