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International Relations

Recently it was reported that the “world’s first space crime” may have been committed by a NASA astronaut, Anne McClain. She is suspected of signing into the personal bank account of her estranged spouse from a computer aboard the International Space Station (ISS). The law which is applicable to the case is the International Space Station Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA). The drafters of this agreement had made provisions to meet such a contingency. Article 22 of the Agreement concerns itself with criminal jurisdiction and states that countries which are mentioned in the agreement may exercise criminal jurisdiction over personnel in flights who are their respective nationals. Hence, the laws of the U.S. will be applicable in this situation concerning the first space crime.

On this occasion, the scientific and legal communities appear to have successfully evaded jurisdictional and procedural ambiguities. Nevertheless, a few questions remain. What will happen when legal issues that are beyond the foresight of existing agreements arise? What will happen when crimes take place on commercial space vehicles sent by private corporations, third-party nations, and jurisdictions not already covered?

NASA executives recently announced that parts of the ISS will be opened up for more commercial opportunities. Such steps could provide a fillip to filming movies or commercials in space, space tourism, sending astronauts of space-ambitious countries into space, and much more.

Although there are legal documents that govern space, such as the Outer Space Treaty, the Moon Agreement, the Registration Convention, the Rescue Agreement, and the Liability Convention, none of them comprehends a detailed framework to cater to criminal disputes that might arise on commercial space vessels, which will have personnel and space tourists from different jurisdictions. Space ambitions could lead to an increasing number of autonomous space stations established by countries such as India and China. Consider India’s space exploration ambition – ISRO is expected to become capable of sending Indians to the ISS owing to missions such as Mission Gaganyaan.

Are humans from different cultural, political and economic settings likely to stop committing crimes in space? In such a scenario, far-sighted laws are essential to cater to every situation of potential criminality that might occur.

Consequently, it is not inconceivable that India then might have to become party to the IGA or contemplate a perceptive treaty with ISS nations to meet legal contingencies to dock its space vehicle there. If so, India will have to include provisions relating to offences in space in the Indian Penal Code, as that could be material in situations involving outer space, Indian citizens, and space equipment. India might also need to formulate new international agreements on space, or sign MOUs to that effect.

The same national pride that emerged out of India’s ambitious plan to reach Mars on its first attempt must be blended with the formulation of visionary laws, clear of legal ambiguities, which cater directly to the needs of rapidly evolving space science. It is imperative, therefore, that India’s legal prowess is therefore applied urgently and rigorously to the situational complexities of space exploration. Only by keeping apace with the explosive growth in space technology can India hope to remain at the forefront of scientific development in this exciting field.

Shreyashi is a former legal intern, Ministry of Law and Justice, and Sidharth Kapoor is a former researcher, Observer Research Foundation

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