40
$\begingroup$

What crimes have been committed or attempted in space? What are the procedures that the various space agencies have for dealing with on-orbit crime, either on the ISS or on another spacecraft? Would the final say of punishment lie with the mission commander, or with someone on the ground? What if the mission commander were accused of a crime?

$\endgroup$
14
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Question inspired by the accusations against Anne McClain. $\endgroup$
    – dotancohen
    Nov 11 '20 at 18:54
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ If you don't have an answer in few days, you can try on law.SE $\endgroup$
    – Manu H
    Nov 11 '20 at 19:11
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Some insight is available at Jurisdiction over crime in space and What if any US laws apply on the ISS? $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Nov 11 '20 at 22:34
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Do you count littering? Apollo left a whole bunch of junk on the moon - that would technically be a crime in most places on Earth, but nobody really has jurisdiction up there. There's also a lot of junk floating in orbit that's actually becoming an increasing problem. $\endgroup$ Nov 12 '20 at 21:41
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I find it very interesting that all answers and comments relate to incidents between astronauts and people on Earth. There seems to be no record of crimes carried out on orbit fully contained in space, such as theft, assault, or even insubordination to a spacecraft commander. $\endgroup$
    – dotancohen
    Nov 12 '20 at 21:58
42
$\begingroup$

There's the following gem in the Apollo 13 transcript, regarding astronaut Jack Swigert:

024:18:10 CC Okay. Some truck lines are being struck in the Midwest, and the school teachers have walked off the job in Minneapolis. Today's favorite pasttime across the - Uh oh; have you guys completed your income tax?
024:18:28 CDR How do I apply for an extension?
024:18:31 CC (Laughter)
024:18:32 CMP Yes, Joe. I got to - hey, listen - It ain't too funny; things kind of happened real fast down there, and I do need an extension.
024:18:43 CC (Laughter)
024:18:44 CMP I didn't get mine filed. And this is serious; would you - -
024:18:47 CC You're breaking up the room down here.
024:18:49 CMP - - because I may be spending time in a - -
024:18:51 CC We'll see - -
024:18:52 CMP I may be spending time in a - I may be spending time in another quarantine besides the one that they are planning for me.

(To be fair to him, he was assigned to the mission 3 days before launch).

I'm not a lawyer, but from what I can find, the failure to file income tax is a criminal offence in the US.

In this case, this was sorted out by mission control helping him to get the IRS to grant him an extension.

In countries of law, the final say in punishment if someone goes through with a crime is up to the legal system.

$\endgroup$
4
  • 29
    $\begingroup$ He was granted an extension before the deadline IIRC, so it was never a crime. Close though. $\endgroup$
    – GdD
    Nov 11 '20 at 19:15
  • 20
    $\begingroup$ As a federal employee, the IRS knows how much money Jack Swigert made and so long as he does not owe any taxes, at best not filing is a misdemeanor. It becomes a possible felony when it becomes “overt act of evasion”. US Code Title 26 § 7203. While he technically never left the US, he was still "abroad" therefore he qualified for an extension with no penalties. - space.com/… $\endgroup$
    – gwally
    Nov 12 '20 at 0:42
  • 7
    $\begingroup$ Why do you say he "technically never left the US"? Surely as soon as the launch vehicle left American airspace he was beyond its borders. In fact, one of the comments made by Mission Control when the tax return was being discussed was that Swigert was "most definitely out of the country". $\endgroup$
    – GordonD
    Nov 13 '20 at 12:09
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Houston, this is 13. Is it true that Jack's income tax return was going to be used to buy the ascent fuel for the LM? $\endgroup$ Nov 14 '20 at 2:30
25
$\begingroup$

The crew of Apollo 7 defied many orders from mission control, due to a crowded schedule, a lack of sleep, and the commander's head cold. Because all three were active members of the military at the time, they could have been subject to a military tribunal for insubordination.

Instead of a trial, they were never allowed to fly again. They were also the only crew to not be awarded the Distinguished Service Medal during the Apollo era.

$\endgroup$
3
  • 13
    $\begingroup$ Were the orders they refused to follow given by their legal military commanding officer? $\endgroup$ Nov 12 '20 at 2:08
  • 14
    $\begingroup$ Regarding the second paragraph, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollo_7#Assessment_and_aftermath paints a more nuanced picture of the situation and that eventually they got that medal (ok, 2008 is well past the Apollo era) and (as far as I read it) no one even considered to subject them to a military tribunal. So this answer seems a bit speculative as there is no source presented that says that what happened on Apollo 7 was ever considered "a crime". $\endgroup$ Nov 12 '20 at 11:12
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @SimonLehmann: Yes, that's why I said in the Apollo era. Note that the question asks "or attempted". $\endgroup$
    – DrSheldon
    Nov 12 '20 at 13:20
22
$\begingroup$

Does mutiny count? If so, then I submit an incident back in 1973 involving the Skylab 4 crew who, citing excessive work load and not enough rest, stopped communicating with the ground stations and did not perform their scheduled duties.

Granted, some sources claim that the episode wasn’t a mutiny in the technical sense, but it did have the consequence of forcing NASA to reconsider how they had been treating crews.

Further articles exist, discussing the matter, and the book Homesteading Space is said to have "the best account of what actually went down in the early days of the Skylab 4 mission".

$\endgroup$
1
12
$\begingroup$

I believe this has not been settled in court yet, but astronaut Anne McClain has been accused of illegally accessing her estranged spouse's bank account from a computer on the ISS:

Then, earlier this year McClain allegedly accessed Worden's bank account while the astronaut was at the space station.

Worden said her bank “did give evidence to my attorneys that she did access my bank accounts,” according to KPRC. “I was shocked and appalled at the audacity by her to think that she could get away with that, and I was very disheartened that I couldn't keep anything private.”

Worden's attorneys wrote to the NASA Office of Inspector General in July this year about the alleged breach.

Her attorney could not immediately be reached for comment. A copy of the letter obtained by KPRC gives computer details to show that McClain accessed Worden's bank account a few times from a NASA computer in January and February.

According to other press reports there's no issue of jurisdiction because both the astronaut and her alleged victim are US citizens, so US law applies. Apparently there is a small section of the treaty governing operation of the ISS that covers criminal disputes:

The International Space Station is governed by an international treaty called the Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) on Space Station Cooperation. The document does include a small section on criminal jurisdiction. It states very clearly that each country involved in the ISS has criminal jurisdiction over their own personnel in space, as long as they do not affect someone from another country. Both McClain and Worden are US citizens, which makes it clear that American laws would apply here.

Things would have been hairier, though, if this complaint had been lodged by an international partner aboard the ISS. If a dispute arises in orbit between two members of differing countries, the two governments would have to consult with one another and figure out which type of law to use. But there is a time limit on how long the countries can bicker over jurisdiction. If they can’t come to an agreement after three months, the government of the alleged victim is granted jurisdiction if the alleged perpetrator refuses to cooperate with the negotiations.

$\endgroup$
1
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Though see here, in which Worden has now been charged with making false statements about this accusation such that the access to the account information may not have been illegal or unauthorized at the time. $\endgroup$ Nov 15 '20 at 3:17
7
$\begingroup$

The bible-reading from lunar orbit on Apollo-8 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollo_8_Genesis_reading)lead to a court hearing claiming a violation of First Amendment separation of church and state.

Madalyn Murray O'Hair, founder of American Atheists, responded by suing the United States government, alleging violations of the First Amendment.[8] The suit was filed in the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas. It was submitted to a three-judge panel, which concluded that the case was not a three-judge matter, and dismissed the case for failure to state a cause of action.[9] The direct appeal to the Supreme Court was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction.[10] Another appeal was heard before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which affirmed the trial court's dismissal per curiam.[11] The Supreme Court declined to review the case

$\endgroup$
1
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ That is not a criminal matter, however. $\endgroup$ Nov 14 '20 at 3:58
4
$\begingroup$

I don't know if these precisely match the original intent of the question, but for posterity's sake consider that:

There are some who feel that the constant presence of visible low-flying Starlink satellites to people gazing up at the evening or morning skies is a crime against humanity, and their impact even when at altitude on both visible and radio astronomy is a crime against science.

$\endgroup$
3
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ In my experience, seeing the Starlink trains actually inspires children $\endgroup$
    – dotancohen
    Nov 13 '20 at 9:47
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ not an actual crime, though, so not an answer $\endgroup$
    – user253751
    Nov 13 '20 at 16:51
  • $\begingroup$ @user253751 not so fast. In the real world it's not up to user253751 nor any one person to decide if a crime has been committed or not. Agreed it's a quite stretch, but if you read up on space law it is a bit fuzzy. There is no lack of opinions of course, but crime is in the eye of the beholder until charged, then prosecuted. The question asks "Has a crime been committed" not if it's been ascertained in a legal way. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Nov 14 '20 at 23:06
1
$\begingroup$

As a counterexample, here is a purported crime in space that was initially talked about in popular media for a few days but simply did not happen!

I am posting it here as a reminder so that it doesn't get posted twice.

I'd heard on a podcast a while back (maybe an episode of Star Talk?) that it was initially suspected that someone tried to sabotage the ISS. I don't remember the episode but apparently there was some damage to the inside walls that could have only been done intentionally.

At the time it wasn't known who had done it, and some ventured a guess that would constitute crimes in the jurisdictions of any of the crew members.

Later on cooler heads prevailed and it was generally accepted that the hole was an accident during manufacture and the makeshift plug put on it had fallen off during spaceflight.

Was that a crime? Hard to say, but either way it didn't take place in space and no astronaut was every considered as a perpetrator!

$\endgroup$
4
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ You may be referring to a hole that was found in a Soyuz capsule attached to the ISS. The ISS lost some air, but there was no danger to craft or crew. The hole was drilled on Earth, and few details of the investigation were made public. $\endgroup$
    – dotancohen
    Nov 12 '20 at 19:08
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Welcome to Stack Exchange! Ya after the initial wild speculation I think the unofficial partial consensus is something along the lines of the hole being accidentally drilled during manufacture and then probably plugged awkwardly rather than welded closed properly to keep it quiet for job security reasons. You can read further in several posts here: space.stackexchange.com/search?q=%5Biss%5D+hole $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Nov 12 '20 at 23:08
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I hope you don't mind, but I added some additional information to your answer so that it is more helpful here. If you are uncomfortable with this you can roll it back, but I think in its original form it would be deleted because it didn't answer the question as asked. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Nov 12 '20 at 23:14
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ No man I don't mind the additional information. Only thing I had heard was what was on the pod cast. I think it was an exchange between Neil and an astronaut guest but it was so long ago I can't remember exactly. $\endgroup$
    – Dan Myers
    Nov 13 '20 at 18:14

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.