Has a crime ever been committed in space? Who would investigate allegations of crimes committed beyond Earth’s atmosphere? Under what jurisdiction are astronauts held accountable as no country owns space? Well, in space all astronauts are governed by National Law; this is similar to the law on international waters as no single country governs the oceans. People who commit crimes at sea would be tried under the law of the country the ship is registered to. Likewise, crimes committed on a spacecraft belonging to a nation will have legal jurisdiction, however things get a little complicated regarding the International Space Station because it’s international. The big five players involved (U.S, Canada, Russia, Japan and Europe) are all responsible for their elements of the ISS and astronauts aboard are governed by law of their home country. For example, if a US citizen broke the law in space, they would be subject to US law.
Coming back to the question, has a crime ever been committed in space? Technically, the answer is no. However, back in August 2019, there was the first allegation of criminal wrong doing in space as Summer Worden, the estranged spouse of Astronaut Anne McClain, filed a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission that Anne had illegally accessed her bank account while abroad the ISS. Worden found out that her online banking had been accessed from a NASA computer network. During this time the couple were going though divorce proceedings, although McClain stated that she was merely making sure that the family’s finances were in order. McClain, who was a U.S Air Force combat pilot turned astronaut, was on a six-month mission to the International Space Station serving as Flight Engineer. In March 2019, McClain was supposed to be among the first all-female spacewalk but was replaced by Astronaut Nick Hague due to lack of appropriately sized spacesuits. Currently this accusation is still under investigation and only time will tell if the very first official crime in space was committed.
Other Ruler Breakers – Apollo 15
Believe it or not there have been numerous ruler breakers in space. The notorious scandal aboard the Apollo 15 mission to the Moon known as the ‘postal covers incident’ involved Astronauts James Irwin, David Scott and Alfred Worden, who carried over 400 unauthorised postal covers into space. Usually each astronaut can bring abroad a few personal items for friends and family in their P.P.K (Personal Preference Kits), which are approved by NASA.
The story goes that the astronauts were approached by a German stamp dealer, Hermann Sieger, who paid them each $7000 to take 100 covers to the Moon. The crew agreed to this and took an additional 100 covers each for themselves to later sell on. In total there were 400 unauthorised covers on the Apollo mission which were smuggled on in Scott’s leg pockets in his spacesuit and remained there for the entire mission. Once the Apollo 15 crew returned home, they sent the 100 covers to Sieger. The agreement was to sell them on after the Apollo programme had ended, however Sieger started selling them immediately. NASA have strict rules about astronauts gaining financially by taking items into space, and once NASA discovered this the astronauts of the Apollo 15 crew never flew another space mission again. However, at the time wages for astronaut weren’t particularly good so maybe we can’t blame them for trying? Sadly, the success of this mission was overshadowed by this scandal.
Probably the most amusing ‘space criminal’ was astronaut John Young. Not only is he well known for commanding the Apollo 16 mission and moonwalk but he was also known as the astronaut who hid a corn beef sandwich in his spacesuit. In 1965 aboard the Gemini 3 mission, John Young and Gus Grissom were on the very first American spaceflight to be crewed by more than one astronaut. (The Russians beat them by a week!).
Young had placed the smuggled sandwich in his spacesuit pocket that he got from astronaut and well-known practical joker Wally Schirra. On their trip Young took out the two-day old sandwich, and Grissom took a bite, but crumbs of rye bread started floating around the cabin and the astronauts soon put it away in Grissom’s spacesuit. By doing this it was a breach of protocol and a safety issue as small food particles such as crumbs can cause problems aboard spacecrafts. Funnily enough one of the objectives of the mission was to test NASA’s space food, and those in congress believed that by smuggling the sandwich abroad they ignored the actual space food they were evaluating. Ultimately, Young and Grissom were given an official reprimand for the sandwich stunt and as far as we know no other contraband sandwiches have made it into space.
So all in all, the “crimes” committed in space are not too dramatic. Astronauts are level-headed and well-trained individuals that have worked their whole lives to get to the point of being in space. The chances that any astronaut would jeopardise their career and legacy by committing a serious crime remains small.