Crimes in Space: Whose Law Will We Use?

Mars One Colony and Astronauts
Artist's depiction of Mars One astronauts and their colony on the Red Planet. (Image credit: Mars One/Bryan Versteeg)

It sounds like the plot of a bad science-fiction movie: a crew member decides to do something evil just for the sake of money, or fame, or for a cause. It's not something that we've seen in space -- but that may be just because of the high level of scrutiny that goes into astronaut selection, a new article argues.

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A suggested way to prevent crimes in space is outlined in Room: The Space Journal by Christopher J. Newman, a reader in public law at the University of Sunderland in the United Kingdom. He argues that we can't take good attitudes for granted once space tourism takes a hold. They won't face the same rigorous selections as today's astronaut corps, which employ a range of pilots, scientists and engineers.

"Space tourism companies will seek to bring access to space to a wide range of people and, as can be seen from terrestrial air travel, such a wide pool of individuals will undoubtedly need some form of legal framework to ensure their behavior can be regulated," Newman writes.

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The fundamental United Nations treaty for space exploration (formulated in the 1960s) is nicknamed the "Outer Space Treaty," and has been signed by more than 100 countries. Some of its principles include prohibiting nuclear weapons, stopping nations from making claims in space, and making nations responsible for damage their space objects (and citizens) cause.

Virgin Galactic is among the companies hoping to bring paying tourists into space. (Image credit: Virgin Galactic)

Criminality isn't explored in detail here, Newman says, but other authors have tackled it. A 1991 Draft for A Convention on Manned Space Flight put in place a "chain of command" where the commander of the ship is responsible to his or her crew; all crew members, in turn, must answer to the director of spaceflight operations.

Space law often looks to aviation law to provide guidance. The Tokyo Convention of 1963 allows the pilot of an aircraft to take action against passengers who are being disruptive, Newman says. While it's a robust treaty supplemented by other works, Newman argues that aviation law may not be enough to help in space.

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"The nature of sovereignty and the apportionment of liability in international space law is fundamentally different to that adopted in aviation law," he writes. "Additionally, international conventions have been constructed exclusively with civil aviation and aircraft in mind."

So perhaps the International Space Station could give us some guidance. The intergovernmental agreement has some provisions. For example, signatories have criminal jurisdiction of their nationals on station (which would mean a German committing a crime against an Italian in a Russian module would present a case for German law, Newman says.)

A code of conduct helps govern activities on the International Space Station. (Image credit: NASA)

The agreement also has provisions in it such as giving the ISS commander ultimate responsibility over the crew, outlining the chain of command, how ground-to-space procedures work, and disciplinary procedures. Newman suggests that a new draft agreement for space tourism could be created that would have similar procedures in it for the spacecraft pilot's command, for example.

But there are some questions about what to do when flights move from short-term jaunts to long-term stays on space station. There would be need to be provisions for some sort of a space jail, Newman suggests, as confinement is an accepted way of meting out punishment.

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For missions even further from Earth, Newman urges more study to figure out how the crews should deal with crimes in space. Luckily for futurists, the first travelers so far away will likely be highly-trained crews similar to the vast majority of astronauts on the ISS today, Newman says. You can read more on the study here.

Originally published on Discovery News.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: