Is there a law covering a person’s actions in outer space? Ask the lawyer

Q: A number of reports indicate NASA is evaluating if one of its astronauts illegally accessed her wife’s bank account while on the International Space Station. Do we have laws that control what goes on in outer space?

-S.J., Orange


Ron Sokol

A: The astronaut accused of accessing the account indicates she was simply trying to make sure there was sufficient money on hand. In any event, the location of the astronaut is not key — this is a “ground issue”; either she had the right to access or not.

The Space Station is governed by an international treaty which has a modest section on criminal jurisdiction. Specifically, each country has criminal jurisdiction with respect to its personnel, so long as that does not affect someone from a different country. If two countries get into a dispute, they are to consult with each other to determine which law is applicable. If they have not agreed in three months, the law applied is that of the government of the alleged victim.

Q: If there is an accident in outer space — such as between orbiting satellites, or an assault of some kind on a space ship — what law applies?

-V.B., El Segundo

A: More than 50 years ago, 109 nations entered into the Outer Space Treaty (OST), which sets forth guidelines on how space is to be peacefully explored. Each government is responsible for its own commercial companies and private entities. This includes objects the country launches into space, and its own personnel.

For example, an American tourist goes into space, and does something illegal. The United States should have jurisdiction over the tourist. Further, there is a part of the United States Code that pertains to criminal conduct in space. The goal is to deal with criminal issues that are outside of any nation’s jurisdiction. The covered acts, however, are notably egregious (such as rape or murder); it is unclear as to how lesser misconduct (egs., identity theft or hacking) will be handled. Bottom line, there are other international treaties than the OST that apply to outer space (such as the Moon Agreement and the Registration Convention), but like space exploration itself, the law pertaining to outer space is by no means fully completed.

Ron Sokol is a Manhattan Beach attorney with more than 35 years of experience. His column, which appears in print on Wednesdays, presents a summary of the law and should not be construed as legal advice. Email questions and comments to him at RonSEsq@aol.com or write to him at Ask the Lawyer, Daily Breeze, 400 Continental Blvd, Suite 600, El Segundo, CA 90245.

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